I once had an office assistant working on my team, who would email then call each team member daily, sometimes multiple times, for an update.

First, she would send an email. Then, one of my other colleagues would remark, “Did you see that email?” Finally, the assistant would call me 15 minutes later to check if I received the same email.

Our assistant was constantly interrupting my most important task, often to focus on something less important. She knew how to prioritise based on what was urgent or needed now, rather than what was important or needed most.

In one case, I had a proposal ready to present to my client, who was away on holidays. Every day, for 2 weeks, our assistant phoned me to ask the same question. “Did you get a chance to present that proposal yet?” I had the same answer every day. “Not yet. Their decision maker is away on holidays”.

Busyness culture

I soon learned the problem was not my assistant. Our culture of busyness was to blame. Somehow we continued, as a team, to reward people who looked busy. Somehow we continued to perpetuate myths like the effectiveness of multi-tasking and open plan offices.

Talk about 50 First Dates! It was like meeting my colleagues for the first time, every day… but this was just one of many questions. Multiply that for every client and conversation in the office. You will soon realise the problem was more than an inconvenience.

50 First Dates is a comedy movie about a woman named Lucy, who gets amnesia from an accident. Lucy’s partner Henry goes through the same routine every day to remind Lucy of the things she has forgotten.

Back at my office, I was staring to feel how I imagine Henry would have. Okay, so I didn’t date my assistant but I felt like was living the same day, over and over. Still, my assistant wasn’t to blame. My colleagues weren’t to blame. Nor was my manager. Our hive of busyness at the office displayed the symptoms of a broader cultural problem.

Don’t believe me? Ask anyone how they’re going. 9 times out of 10 they will tell you how busy they are. Busy is trendy.

Busyness vs. Productivity

We’re moving forward and getting work done the only way we collectively know how. Our work habits and culture are the leftovers from the industrial revolution, when you could see if someone was working because of their task output. When 9-5 was the only way to work and tasks were simple, repetitive, with little need for making significant decisions

Managers still believe their teams are productive if they can see it. As long as people are tapping away on keyboards, answering calls, interrupting each other’s work with a quick glance or, “Are you busy?”, to prompt someone to start thinking about what they need to do next. People are working in a constant state of distraction and while they may be busy, they’re not as productive as they could be.

Most valuable use of your time

What can we do instead? Each of us need to pause and ask, “Is what I am about to do the most valuable use of my time?”. We need to return our offices to productive calm in preference to chaotic environments of mixed productivity.

Managers need to stop protecting these silly trends that proved ineffective, sometimes decades ago. Stop advertising for multi-taskers to fill every role. Offices need to be re-designed. Teams need to work smarter together and leaders need to address the complexities of a modern, flexible and evolving workforce.

Smarter ways to work

What can you do in your workspace today, so your team is more effective? Regardless of whether you’re a manager or one of the team, you can possibly see smarter ways to work, meet, communicate and collaborate. Keep asking yourself and your team, “Is there a smarter way to do this?”.

We live in one of the most competitive ages in history, which means we need to shape up as individuals and organisations. Businesses with extreme focus will outperform those who continue to operate in a state of chaos, distraction and confusion.