Quick question: How do you spend your time at work and what is it costing you? Slack’s Workforce Index, based on survey responses from more than 10,000 desk workers around the globe, uncovers new findings on how to structure the workday to maximise productivity and strengthen employee well-being and satisfaction.
Key findings include:
- Employees who log off at the end of the workday register 20% higher productivity scores than those who feel obligated to work after hours.
- Making time for breaks during the workday improves employee productivity and well-being, and yet half of all desk workers say they rarely or never take breaks.
- On average, desk workers say that the ideal amount of focus time is around four hours a day, and more than two hours a day in meetings is the tipping point at which a majority of workers feel overburdened by meetings.
- Three out of every four desk workers report working in the 15:00 to 18:00 time frame, but of those, only one in four consider these hours to be highly productive.
For decades, putting in extra hours at the office was seen by many as a sign of hard work and productivity, even a badge of honour. But new research from Slack shows that despite this longstanding perception, working after hours is more often associated with lower levels of productivity – and could be a red flag that an employee is juggling too many tasks and needs help with prioritising and balancing their time.
The latest results from the Workforce Index, Slack’s survey of more than 10,000 desk workers, show that the productivity gap depends on what’s driving workers to burn the midnight (or early morning) oil. About two out of every five desk workers (37%) are logging on outside of their company’s standard hours at least weekly, and more than half (54%) of these workers say that it’s because they feel pressured to, not because they choose to.
Employees who feel obligated to work after hours register 20% lower productivity scores than those who log off at the end of the standard workday. They also report:
- 2.1x worse work-related stress
- 1.7x times lower satisfaction with their overall working environment
- 2x greater burnout
Both groups say that around 70% of their time spent working is productive – a sign that those working extra hours are putting in as much effort as their colleagues – but those who work after hours are 50% more likely to say that their productivity is blocked by competing priorities compared to those who log a standard workday.
On the other hand, employees who work outside of standard hours by choice (to better suit their schedule or to pursue personal ambitions) report no negative impacts and even a slight uptick in their wellness and productivity scores.
‘We’ve long seen a focus on quantity over quality across many aspects of work, from how we spend our time to how we define productivity. Constantly feeling like you need to catch up is hurting employees and businesses. This underscores the importance of building a culture of trust where employees feel safe enough to speak up when they need help prioritising and have the right balance of time in the work day to get work done.’
When it comes to productivity, it’s not about the quantity of time spent working, it’s about quality
Results from the Workforce Index show that a significant portion of desk workers across the globe are struggling to balance their time at work, with different job tiers experiencing this problem in different ways.
More than one in four desk workers (27%), including more than half (55%) of executives, say that they spend too much time in meetings. A similar share (25%) of all desk workers, including 43% of executives, say that they spend too much time in email.
One in five (20%) don’t have enough time to connect with colleagues, and this problem is most pronounced among more junior employees.
Alarmingly, the data shows that many workers across all levels are plowing through their daily tasks without any downtime: half of desk workers surveyed (50%) say that they rarely or never take breaks during the workday. These workers are 1.7x more likely to experience burnout.
Their break-taking counterparts, on the other hand, show 62% higher scores for work-life balance, 43% greater ability to manage stress and anxiety, 43% greater overall satisfaction and – perhaps surprisingly – 13% higher scores for productivity.
‘Why did we all come to believe that we are more productive if we are always on and that we need to burn out in order to succeed? It goes back to the first Industrial Revolution, when we started revering machines. The goal of machines is to minimise downtime. But for the human operating system, downtime is not a bug, it’s a feature. Elite athletes know that recovery is part of peak performance. Downtime is a productivity multiplier.’
Prime productivity hours: Whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, the afternoon slump is real
On average, desk workers say that 70% of their time at work is productive. When asked about prime hours for productivity, answers vary widely, with some desk workers preferring the morning and others preferring the evening. But no matter their preference, a majority (71%) of desk workers agree that the late afternoon is the worst time for work, with productivity plummeting between the hours of 15:00 and 18:00.
While three out of every four desk workers report working in the 15:00 to 18:00 time frame, only one in four consider these hours to be highly productive.
‘This goes to show that productivity isn’t linear. Productivity happens in bursts, on and off throughout a day, not necessarily in prescribed windows of time, and definitely not for eight consecutive hours. The “afternoon slump” shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing; for many workers this could be an ideal time to take that break that will boost their overall productivity for the day.’
The most productive people use time management strategies. They are 1.6x more likely to block time to complete specific tasks, 1.7x more likely to only check email at specific times and 2.2x more likely to set focus timers.
The ‘Goldilocks Zone’ for work: How to balance your workday to optimise your productivity
While there’s no one-size-fits-all schedule that applies across all industries, roles and job levels, a close examination of the data reveals a formula emerging to set employees up for success.
Regardless of job tier, the research shows a ‘Goldilocks Zone’ for the ideal balance of focus time, collaboration time, social connection and downtime. On average, desk workers say that the ideal amount of focus time is around four hours a day. More than two hours a day in meetings is the tipping point at which a majority of workers say they’re spending ‘too much time’ in meetings, with a similar pattern emerging across all job levels. People who say that they spend too much time in meetings are more than twice as likely to say they don’t have enough time to focus.
In contrast, about 10% of desk workers, most common among employees with less than one year at a company and those aged under 30, say that they spend too little time in meetings, and this is also associated with a decreased sense of belonging and productivity.
‘Focus time, collaboration time, connection and rest are like the macronutrients of a workday. The right balance gives you the energy you need to work your best. We cannot consider these critical components of our work in silos. To be our most effective, we must create the space for collaborative work and for focused work.’
What do desk workers most want from AI? Assistance and automation to rightsize the meeting load and free up time
At the same time that desk workers are struggling with time management, many are also excited about the potential of AI tools to give them more command over balancing their time.
An overwhelming majority of executives – 94% – feel some urgency to incorporate AI into their organisations, with half of executives saying that they feel a strong sense of urgency. And yet, our survey shows that adoption of AI is still in its infancy, with only one in five desk workers reporting that they have used AI tools for work.
Given the low adoption, it’s not surprising that most desk workers (more than 80%) say that AI tools are not improving their productivity at work – yet. But they’re anticipating that AI will assist with one of the biggest struggles of the workday: meetings. The top three activities that employees expect AI will provide the most value for in the future are 1) meeting notes and recaps 2) writing assistance and 3) automation of workflows.
‘People at every job level may be shocked to see that more than two hours of meetings a day reduces productivity. It may feel unrealistic to many team leaders to try to hit that target today. But that’s where the newest generation of AI tools could be a lifesaver. An AI assistant that could accurately summarise meeting notes and automate common workflows could be the key that frees up our time and helps us to unlock the balance we need to set ourselves up for success.’
Are you working hard or working smart? Dive deeper into what the data shows about how to optimise your time at work in our webinar New research uncovers the secret to a productive workday.
The Workforce Index surveyed 10,333 workers in the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the UK between 24th August and 15th September 2023. The survey was administered by Qualtrics and did not target Slack or Salesforce employees or customers. Respondents were all desk workers, defined as employed full-time (30 or more hours per week) and either having one of the roles listed below or saying that they ‘work with data, analyse information or think creatively’: executive management (e.g. president/partner, CEO, CFO, C-suite), senior management (e.g. executive VP, senior VP), middle management (e.g. department/group manager, VP), junior management (e.g. manager, team leader), senior staff (i.e. non-management), skilled office worker (e.g. analyst, graphic designer). For brevity, we refer to the survey population as ‘desk-based’ or ‘desk workers’.