Have you ever been totally in the zone, grinding away at work oblivious to the world around you when you’re rudely interrupted by a *DING* that snaps you right out of your trance and back to the tedium of a seemingly infinite inbox? Or maybe you were cruising along on some project you’d been putting off when a calendar reminder pops up to tell you you’ve got ten minutes of focus remaining until you need to be in yet another useless meeting (this is me). New research from Microsoft — yes, the makers of Teams — says that nearly 70% of people surveyed for its 2023 Work Trend Index don’t have enough uninterrupted focus time during the workday. So if you’ve experienced the above, and I’m sure you have, you’re not alone.
It gets worse. Along with surveying 31,000 people in 31 countries, Microsoft analyzed trillions of Microsoft 365 productivity signals for the study. So not only did they ask people for their opinions, they looked at a huge amount of data generated by their own users to arrive at the study’s conclusions.
Normally we here at Going Concern take every opportunity to sneer arrogantly at corporate buzzwords however in this case it seems they found a good one: digital debt (not be confused with the term “technical debt” described by McKinsey in 2022). Clutter and noise, basically.
We’re all carrying digital debt: the inflow of data, emails, meetings, and notifications has outpaced humans’ ability to process it all. And the pace of work is only intensifying. Everything feels important, so we spend our workdays trying to get out of the red. Nearly 2 in 3 people (64%) say they struggle with having the time and energy to do their job—and those people are 3.5x more likely to also struggle with innovation and strategic thinking. And nearly 2 in 3 leaders (60%) are already feeling the effects, saying that a lack of innovation or breakthrough ideas on their teams is a concern. There are only so many minutes in the day—and every minute we spend managing this digital debt is a minute not spent on the creative work that leads to innovation. In a world where creativity is the new productivity, digital debt is more than an inconvenience—it’s impacting business.
Who has time for creativity when you’re spending so much time talking about it in meetings? Check out these numbers (emphasis mine):
Hours worked, workday span, and time spent in meetings have steadily increased over the past few years—it’s easier than ever to communicate and harder than ever to keep up. Taking a closer look at how people spend their time, it’s clear that a lack of focus time, the search for information, and the volume of constant communications have an opportunity cost. Sixty-eight percent of people say they don’t have enough uninterrupted focus time during the workday. And 62% of survey respondents say they struggle with too much time spent searching for information in their workday. Across the Microsoft 365 apps, the average employee spends 57% of their time communicating (in meetings, email, and chat) and 43% creating (in documents, spreadsheets, and presentations).1 The heaviest email users (top 25%) spend 8.8 hours a week on email, and the heaviest meeting users (top 25%) spend 7.5 hours a week in meetings.2 And this global average includes frontline workers— for knowledge workers, who rely even more on digital communication, the share of the week taken up by emails and meetings is even greater.
Can we take a moment to appreciate this image (inexplicably uploaded as .svg on Microsoft’s article) of Sisyphus trying to get through his workday:
It’s not just the sheer volume of meetings but how ineffective they are at doing the thing they’re supposed to do which is share information and generate ideas among teams. Allegedly. In many organizations their job is solely to justify middle managers and make terrible leaders feel like they’re leading, hence why they tend to be so pointless.
Take meetings, for example. People report that the number one productivity disruptor is inefficient meetings, followed closely by having too many meetings at number three. Most people say it’s difficult to brainstorm in a virtual meeting (58%) or catch up if they joined a meeting late (57%), that next steps at the end of a meeting are unclear (55%), and that it’s hard to summarize what happens (56%).
As it did with most everything else, the pandemic made the burden of meetings even worse. Since February 2020, people are in three times more Teams meetings and calls per week (192%).
Microsoft goes on to say that AI has the potential to save us from these many tedious distractions, which was the entire point of them publishing this study it seems. In the survey, business leaders were twice as likely to choose ‘increasing employee productivity’ than ‘reducing headcount’ when they were asked what they would most value about AI in the workplace. So that’s encouraging if it can be trusted. I suspect few business leaders would admit they’re looking forward to AI reducing payroll obligations.
On the worker side, creativity ranks much lower than ‘saving time’ or ‘ending information overload’ when respondents were asked to imagine how AI will be transforming work in the year 2030 (reminder: that’s only six-and-a-half years away). The AI-fueled changes people value most are producing high-quality work in half the time (33%), being able to understand the most valuable ways to spend their time (26%) and energy (25%), and never having to mentally absorb unnecessary or irrelevant information again (23%). With AI poised to remake work, the future will arrive in months not years, said Microsoft.
So what do we think? Can AI really save us from all these wastes of time and empower us to be more productive than ever? Or will it just free us up to find new and creative ways to waste time?
1Collaboration patterns in Microsoft 365 in a rolling 28-day period ending in March 2023 excluding weekends. Time spent is represented by intentional activity in Microsoft 365 applications including Outlook, Teams, Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote. Intentional actions include things like attending a meeting, writing an email, analyzing data, reviewing or editing a document. Includes commercial users and excludes education segment.
2Data represents intentional meeting activity in Microsoft Teams and intentional email activity (including reading and writing emails) in Microsoft Exchange Online by commercial customers in a rolling 28-day period ending in March 2023. Heaviest users represent the top 25% of users by duration. Excludes education segment.