Ways of working are in a constant state of flux, and the upheaval of the pandemic has only accelerated the pace and concentration of change. In today’s business landscape, how can organisations not just keep up, but stay ahead of the curve and future-proof themselves? The answer is simple: data. As a Transformation Director and business advisor with over 20 years of experience in large scale back office transformation, Michael Hyltoft is an expert in using data and AI to drive and execute change. He shares his unique insights and advice in using data to add value in this five-part series.

Ever feel like working days in your company are spent in one meeting after another, with no time to do any work? That may not be your imagination. In a 2017 Harvard Business Review report, it was revealed that over 70% of senior managers believe that meetings are unproductive and inefficient, with almost two-thirds suggesting that it kept them from completing work. And it seems, for many, the pandemic exacerbated the issue.

Researchers from Harvard Business School and New York University gathered and analysed data from over 3 million employees working across Europe, the US, and Israel in recent years. The results showed that the number of meetings increased by 12.9% during lockdown, with the average number of attendees also increasing by 13.5%. And on top of meetings, you also have emails and other forms of workplace communication (in particularly significant amounts for those remote working), adding to the total amount of time we each spend collaborating with our colleagues and external business partners. Collaboration is, of course, a vital working practice, but the data is clear:

More does not equal better.

How does your organisation spend its time?

You can use the data you are already gathering to understand how your employees spend their time through tracking hours spent in meetings (online and in-person) and writing emails, as well as how much time is spent on focus-oriented tasks (reading, preparing, investigating, etc.).

How your employees split their time between collaborative and individual tasks will depend, to a large degree, on the type of work performed and the conditions under which they’re working. For example, while you might expect a project team to spend the majority of their time collaborating, too much time spent that way could be a sign of a project being micromanaged. It’s important to make sure that any data you gather to evaluate how your teams spend their time is reviewed in context, not in isolation.

Time spent collaborating: A real-world example

Below is a real-world example (anonymised) from an UK company. Understandably, you might think that the most significant gains in terms of changing working practices would be made for the leadership team, which spent 96% of its time collaborating. Although this was not optimal, it was not a major issue for the company (even if it did lead to them having long working weeks and impacting the culture of meetings in the organisation). The biggest opportunity for change was actually in the software development team, even though their rates of collaboration were already the lowest in the company. Let me explain.

The data we gathered showed that the team (“Cordis”) spent 39% of their time collaborating – time that they wanted to spend coding. By reviewing the meetings they had and making changes to how they communicated, it was possible to reduce the time spent collaborating to under 30% of their time and hence, in principle, increasing their productivity by 9%.

The importance of leaders leading by example

While in the above example, leadership was not one of the problem areas that needed addressing most urgently (collaboration was a useful working practice for the leadership team), it was an area of concern for another organisation I worked for.

The company had become worried about an increase in out-of-hours collaboration and a review of the available data revealed what had happened. A significant increase in out-of-hours collaboration and communication took place in the senior leadership team during the early days of the pandemic. This was replicated by the management team in the next 2 to 3 months that followed – and before long, it had flowed down to the whole organisation.

Asking the senior leadership to stop initiating out-of-hours collaboration led to a significant drop in the practice. Before evaluating how your teams spend their hours, it’s worth taking a close look at your own working practices as a senior leader. Change starts at the top.

Watch out for fragmented hours

“Fragmented hours” is a phrase for the 5 to 10 minutes you have between meetings. When measuring how your organisation spends its time, these pockets of time won’t fall under the umbrellas for either collaborative or focus-oriented work. They’re notoriously difficult to be productive in and are best discounted for the purposes of evaluation. 

What actions can you take to maximise the impact of collaboration in your organisation?

Collaboration is an important tool in the workplace toolbox, but like any tool, it has to be wielded wisely. When deployed with targeted precision – namely, in ways that are appropriate to the departments, industries, projects, and tasks in question – it adds great value. To start your journey towards streamlining your organisation’s collaborative efficacy, I recommend taking these initial steps:

  • Communicate: Start a company-wide conversation about your desire to improve working practices and help support them as best you can. Show them that change, and openness to change, is coming from the top.
  • Get your management on the same page: Your managers are your front line. Get them to start brainstorming – both independently and with the team – about the changes that could be beneficial. Get them paying attention to the day-to-day ways they work. What collaborative activities do they think are unproductive? Do you all agree on what “working hours” constitutes?
  • Measure, measure, measure: Start using the data you have already collected, for example, through surveys, in employee calendars, and more.
  • Review: Assess the data you’ve gathered and start using it to have pragmatic and unbiased discussions.
  • Track changes: Under the banner of “what gets measured gets done”, consider putting a process in place to track any initiatives you implement and look for trends (good and bad).

Ultimately, measuring the time your organisation spends collaborating can open the door for you to gather useful insights, have beneficial discussions and potentially improve efficiency and employee retention.

The next instalment of the ‘Driving change with data’ series explores meetings in more detail, diving into their efficacy, the different types and considers the problem of recurring meetings.


Written by

Michael Hyltoft

Michael Hyltoft is an accomplished Supply Chain Finance Director, Transformation Director and Advisor with over 20 years’ experience in delivering large scale transformation programmes focusing on the back office.

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