REDMOND, Wash., March 15, 2005 — Becoming more productive at work is a perennial goal among individual workers, teams and organizations everywhere. But the roadmap to that destination can be notoriously imprecise. Seeking to better understand how information workers are faring in today’s workplace environments, the Microsoft Information Worker Product Management Group last year teamed with internationally respected productivity researcher Dr. Larry Baker to create an online survey that helped participants assess their own productivity and receive tips on improving their work habits.
Dr. Larry Baker, Dr. Baker Management Center
Offered at the Microsoft Office Experience Web page ( http://www.microsoft.com/office/evolve ), the Personal Productivity Challenge assessment rated people’s productivity based upon their answers to 18 different productivity-related statements aimed at describing workers or their work situations. The assessment also asked participants to report how many hours their typical workday lasts, how many hours they spend in meetings, how many e-mails they receive daily and other factors that influence productivity.
Responses from more than 38,000 people across 200 countries showed that on average, workers find about 17 hours of their typical 45-hour work week (37 percent) are spent on unproductive tasks and activities. Unclear objectives, lack of team communication and ineffective meetings were cited as some of the top time wasters by roughly a third of respondents worldwide. Participants also indicated they rely heavily on software technology to help optimize both their personal and team productivity in activities such as keeping essential documents organized; communicating effectively with colleagues, partners and customers; and better managing their time in order to stay on top of their work load.
PressPass asked Baris Cetinok , group product manager for the Microsoft Office System, and Baker, an independent time-management expert who helped develop the Personal Productivity Challenge, about the significance of these findings.
PressPass: What were your key goals for this study, and how well did it fulfill those objectives?
Cetinok: Microsoft’s goals were two-fold. First, we sought to help customers become more aware of their own needs, best practices and shortfalls in the areas that influence their personal productivity. Second, this was an unprecedented opportunity for us to learn directly from our global customers about the changing demands of their work environments. We wanted to examine what productivity really means for them and what tools they need to achieve the high level of productivity that everyone strives for.
Judging by the fact that this assessment drew such a large worldwide audience, and that nearly one out of every three participants also clicked through to the Microsoft Office Experience and Microsoft Office Online Web sites to learn more about the capabilities of Microsoft Office 2003 for their jobs, I’m quite pleased with our progress on the goal of better informing our customers. As far as educating Microsoft about its customers’ evolving priorities, I think we’ve gained some very strong indications that workers just about everywhere are struggling with information overload, teamwork, staying connected and accessing important information when they need it.
Baker: I hoped that we would be able to devise an assessment that would determine a number of time management issues, and particularly, identify key problems and situations that people believe impair their performance. I’m especially interested in the areas they regard as weaknesses to overcome, because that knowledge gives us a powerful foundation to introduce more effective ways of working on a very practical, day-to-day basis.
To me, this assessment has succeeded in giving us a much clearer picture of how technology relates to broader time management issues and concepts across a diverse range of occupations as well as in many different cultures.
PressPass: Which of the findings were most enlightening to you?
Baker: I was struck by the high value that respondents placed on using software tools to stay organized, keep others informed, share timely feedback and reduce unproductive demands on their time. With all of the re-engineering and downsizing that has occurred since the 1980s, as well as the need for organizations to compete in a global economy, workers today recognize effective time management as crucial to their success. For example, where we asked people to rank how closely their own workplace environments resemble various situations that are conducive to high productivity, three out of the top four statements with the highest levels of agreement worldwide were technology-related: the ability to quickly find electronic documents when they’re needed; to keep e-mail from piling up because it’s spam-filtered, well organized and priority-driven; and to manage their time effectively to stay on top of their work. These trends reinforce the notion that the PC and associated technologies are becoming more and more central to supporting people’s objectives of not only being more productive, but also working on their own terms to achieve a more satisfying balance between work and other aspects of their lives.
Not surprisingly, those who scored the highest on personal productivity also rated themselves the highest on questions that correlated to the use of technology. This seems to suggest that while today’s workers have a plethora of technologies available, there’s definite room for improvement in how organizations equip their workers with the skills to make the best use of that technology.
Cetinok: What’s interesting to me is that with the exception of procrastination — the most commonly cited time-waster among U.S. workers — people consider their biggest productivity challenges to be factors that are largely driven by others, particularly having unclear objectives, lack of team communication and ineffective meetings. This reinforces the fact that many of us now work in increasingly collaborative environments, and much of our success depends upon communicating effectively with teammates who often are located not just down the hallway but across the country or on the other side of the world. If workers worldwide say they spend 5.6 hours on average in meetings each week, but only 31 percent think those meetings are consistently well conducted and worth their time, then providing improved collaboration tools clearly needs to remain a strong focus area for Microsoft.
The emphasis on group productivity within the responses also is very enlightening for us, because Microsoft has been investing heavily in simplifying how people work with others, share information more richly and control information across increasingly broad boundaries. While the productivity tools in Microsoft Office 2003 and related technologies reflect tremendous progress on those fronts, the Personal Productivity Challenge results show there’s much more that Microsoft can do, and I can assure customers that we’re already making strides to get there in the next versions of Office System technologies.
PressPass: What other interesting patterns and trends do you see taking place in the work force?
Baker: The greatest change that I have seen in the workplace over the past three decades is the influence of technology on how people go about doing their work. Electronic communication, from e-mail to instant messaging to live meetings hosted over the Internet, has dramatically quickened the pace of business communications. However, this also has led to less face-to-face interaction today than ever before. What used to be done through a drop-in visit or a telephone call is now accomplished by sending blocks of text back and forth between each other’s computers. This trend has certainly made a positive impact in allowing workers to communicate instantly and accomplish more, but it also has depersonalized the workplace in many ways.
Technology also has influenced a shift in workers’ perspectives about office clutter. While our desks may be tidier because we can create, store and distribute documents electronically, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re better organized. Now people are concerned about their cluttered computer and the time they spend trying to locate important files or on deleting useless e-mail. As workers depend more and more heavily on technology for communicating with others and accomplishing their tasks, the software tools must evolve to help them more effectively prioritize the information coming at them, figure out how to put it to use and minimize distractions that tend to drag down their productivity.
PressPass: Some information workers say technology improves their productivity, while others say it sometimes hinders them from being more productive. What does this suggest about people’s use of technology and what they need to be more successful?
Cetinok: It’s true that there is some ambivalence about technology reflected in the results, and it’s an important reminder that we must continue to more closely align the capabilities of Microsoft Office technologies with the everyday tasks that our customers face. Our customers are telling us that they need more and better instruction on how to apply Microsoft Office technology in practical ways that make sense for their jobs, rather than just learning technology for technology’s sake. In response, we’re constantly updating the tools and training materials on our Office Experience and Office Online Web sites. We’re also putting considerable energy into delivering software capabilities that solve everyday problems right out of the box, rather than expecting consumers to figure out how to adapt the technology to their needs.
Baker: Beyond making the software features more intuitive and easier to use, I’m pleased to see how much importance Microsoft places on helping customers discover better ways to use technology within the context of their specific workplace roles and objectives. My experience is that most computer software users are familiar with only about 10 or 20 percent of its capabilities, which means that they may be missing tremendous opportunities to boost productivity using the tools they already have at their fingertips. E-mail is a prime example. There’s a lot of evidence in the findings that workers feel bogged down by the time they spend deleting spam and searching for important messages in their inboxes. In my consulting practice, I’ve worked with many people who struggled with those issues but hadn’t discovered the powerful filtering tools and message sorting options in the latest version of Microsoft Office Outlook that could be doing even more to help them.
PressPass: How can Microsoft Office System products and online resources address the most pressing productivity challenges described in the assessment?
Cetinok: The problem of dealing with information overload is one that we’ve definitely had in our sights for a long time. As Dr. Baker mentioned, Office Outlook 2003 has several new features that help people more efficiently manage their e-mail messages, schedules, tasks, contacts and other information to improve how they collaborate. These include more intelligent junk-e-mail-filtering technology and external content-blocking tools to reduce the time spent dealing with unproductive messages, along with a broader array of search folders, quick flags, reminders and alerts to help workers keep important information at their fingertips.
For workers who struggle with team communication and ineffective meetings, combining Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services with Outlook 2003 can help by shifting more of those activities onto the Web, where people have more flexible options for interacting with their teammates. Teams can use SharePoint Services document workspaces to create and review documents in less time and with fewer duplicated efforts compared to e-mailing multiple versions back and forth. By using a SharePoint Services shared meeting space to communicate project updates, exchange information and decide on follow-up actions, a lot of organizations find they can reduce the number and length of face-to-face meetings as well as improve team collaboration.
As Dr. Baker noted, many workers also want more freedom to be productive on their own terms. Part of that is being able to stay connected with important information and people while working from home, traveling on business and even taking time out to participate in important family or social events. Outlook 2003 and Microsoft Windows Mobile software can help by providing remote access to e-mails, tasks, contacts, calendar entries and other important information stored on company networks, so workers can lead a more balanced life without falling behind on their workload.
Workers who lose a lot of productive time searching for hard-to-find information in multiple locations probably could benefit from consolidating it in Microsoft Office OneNote 2003, which allows people to easily retrieve and combine all kinds of notes contained in e-mail, Office documents, handwritten notes and audio. OneNote also makes that information easier to share with colleagues and reuse it in other documents. Various notes and diagrams can be stored in sections with tabs for easy reference, and OneNote even provides keyword search capabilities to help keep information from getting misplaced.
In addition to these current capabilities, Microsoft is investing heavily in new innovations to help our customers gain greater control over their information as well as collaborate more successfully with others. Customers also should explore the Office Experience and Office Online Web sites for tips, templates and demonstrations that highlight what Office can deliver in the context of people’s specific occupations and objectives.
Baker: The whole realm of being able to stay productive, regardless of where you are, is one of the greatest advances that technologies like those in the Microsoft Office System bring to people whose jobs hinge on collaborating effectively with others. Also, Microsoft’s ongoing efforts to look at various professions and identify the most significant functions within the Microsoft Office System that relate to workers’ productivity needs is a very beneficial approach. It’s great that Microsoft included a link from the Personal Productivity Challenge results to the training resources on the Office Experience and Office Online Web sites so participants could immediately find practical tips for reaching their productivity goals. That’s a tremendous investment in helping customers succeed.
PressPass: How will Microsoft use the Personal Productivity Challenge results?
Cetinok: In the short term, we’ll continue to invest in improving the resources on the Office Experience and Office Online Web sites to make them even more relevant to consumers. For the longer term, we will communicate the results back to our software development and engineering teams so this feedback becomes an integral part of their conversations about what the next versions of Microsoft Office should do. We especially want to identify productivity issues that may need further research so we can better understand the needs of information workers, educate them about what’s possible with the Microsoft Office System today and make sure tomorrow’s offerings will fully address the pain points they care about most.