The Fall of Productivity
Labour Day has come and gone, yet the summer sun still lingers on – at least in some parts of the country. But, from a productivity perspective, this September might as well be the winter of your business’ discontent. According to research conducted by leading digital media company, Captivate Network, productivity declines 20% in workplaces during the summer, attendance decreases 19%, and projects take 13% longer to finish. And such results shouldn’t be surprising when you consider the many other studies that reinforce those findings.
For instance, in 2008, American Time Use Survey found that men in particular spent half an hour less at work on average during sunny days, and a joint Harvard University-University of North Carolina study in 2012 showed that students given data entry tasks were less productive if they viewed pictures of summer activities before beginning work – even when the actual weather outside wasn’t so great. What these studies tell us is that summer equals less productivity – and not just because of the heat and humidity. Instead, it seems we are programmed by Mother Nature to enjoy the summer weather.
So what’s the big deal? Why all this talk about summer now that we’re heading into fall? Productivity will go up by itself soon anyway, right? Well, while it is true that productivity should correct as the weather gets cooler and the days get shorter, there are still the post-summer blues to contend with. Like the post-vacation blues, which is the slump many employees feel when they return to work after vacation, the post-summer blues can delay the onset of productivity – especially when, like this year, summer hardly even seems over yet and you’ve given your employees summer hours.
Still, despite the odds, there are actions employers can take to help ensure productivity spikes as soon as possible this September, and for many Septembers to come. Here are the top three:
Multitasking is essentially a myth. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be able to juggle priorities successfully, but doing so actually requires focusing on one thing at a time, not trying to do several things at once. As discussed in our previous article on the benefits of hiring older workers, neuroscience has shown that switching between tasks causes mental delays and that people who complete tasks one by one are more productive overall. Not multitasking should be encouraged year round, but there’s no better time to start than September. That way, your employees will be get back into their grooves more easily and feel less stressed doing it.
While it might seem counterintuitive to encourage breaks in order to get more work done – particularly when you’re dealing with a problem that was essentially caused by one big, long break – the fact remains that stepping away from work allows people to come back to it with renewed focus. So why don’t more of your employees take breaks? In a word: guilt. Some feel that, while they’re at work, they owe their employer every second of their time; others look around, see no one else taking a break, and feel bad about taking one themselves, especially if they’re afraid it’ll make them look lazy. If these attitudes are present in your workplace, then your corporate culture, and maybe even your office floor plan, needs to change because even small breaks lasting just a few minutes have been shown to improve mental acuity by up to 13% and that a mere 15-second break from staring at a monitor can ward decrease fatigue by 50% if you take one every 10 minutes.At minimum, people should always take 30 to 60 minutes away from work during the day, and they should also shift their attention to something new every 90 to 120 minutes. In fact, our brains are hardwired to do so, which means we’ll often find ourselves doing it anyway. Fighting it isn’t healthy. Take the time during team meetings to talk about the benefits of stepping away for lunch and taking smaller breaks throughout the day. But to truly change a corporate culture where people are working harder rather than smarter, managers need to lead by example. Take breaks yourself and witness firsthand how your own productivity goes up.
Promote physical activity
Regular exercise, even low-intensity activities such as walking, doesn’t just make you physically fit; it makes you happier, more energetic, and keeps you mentally sharp, especially as you get older. All of these traits translate into higher productivity, so it’s in the best interest of every organization to promote and support physical activity among its workforce.Many organizations already offer related benefits, such as onsite gyms, discounts for offsite-gym memberships, and the ability to write off a percentage of certain workout equipment purchases.These options are especially useful to employees in the autumn months when going for a run or a bike ride involves increasingly cumbersome clothing and night vision. So if your organization has such benefits, now’s the time to remind your employees to take advantage of them. If your organization doesn’t have such options available, try organizing basketball, dodge ball, or other types of activities outside of work.With that said, for most people, the greatest roadblock to fitness is time – a huge chunk of which is ironically eaten up by work. If only there were exercises people could do at work in order to gain the productivity they need at work…Oh wait – there are. In fact, there are many. But just as with breaks, it’s important for managers to lead by example.
Remember: the above tips aren’t just useful for handling the transition from summer to winter; they’re useful throughout the year and highly beneficial to the health of any organization – not to mention all of the employees who comprise it, including managers. In fact, managers need to play an active role in implementing the kind of corporate culture that perpetuates these productivity-promoting behaviours. Only then can an organization weather the traditional summer productivity slump and ramp up more quickly when the air turns from clammy to crisp.