I have a personal view that few, if any of us, work as effectively and efficiently as we could. I don’t think the way the world of work is typically structured helps with this. The vast majority of us will have contracts of employment which will dictate the hours and the location we must be at each day, as opposed to containing wording which states specific deliverables.

What this does is encourages employees to focus on being present, as opposed to being efficient. There is an argument which a demotivated employee might adopt, which is along the lines of “why should I bother? If I’m paid for the time I’m sat at my desk, as opposed to what I’m delivering… why does it matter how much and how fast I’m producing results?”

A move away from the 9-5

We are at last starting to see a tentative move away from the stereotypical 9-5 sat at a desk, but this is a slow creep as opposed to the seismic shift we really need to make a difference. In the meantime though, it is important that we all start to change our mindsets – both as business leaders and as employees. As individuals, we must all start to prioritise the output we deliver above almost anything else. If we do that, we give weight to the argument that the hours we work and the location we are in is not important, provided we deliver.

And as leaders of organisations and HR professionals, we must start to design job roles and criteria for success where delivery is everything. We need to move far, far away from caring about the hours someone is sat in the office, and ensure that we value and reward based on output.

Back to making the most of our day though. What can we do to make ourselves more efficient? Well, increased efficiency starts with a simple look at how we currently work. Consider recording your time and how you spend it over the course of a week or a fortnight, in the manner of a professional services firm. Lawyers become used to breaking their time down into 6 minute chunks. That might sound a bit extreme, so maybe consider recording every 15 minutes. If you work a 7.5 hour day, that’s 30 different sections of time you have to play with. It sounds like a lot… but you might be surprised how easily these can be wasted.

The great office distraction

Email is often cited as one of the great office distractions, and it’s easy to see how easily it can start to suck time, particularly if you are one of those people who likes to respond to every email as it comes in. If your day is measured into 15 minute sections, start by identifying those sections you will use to tackle email. Then be absolutely disciplined about it. Shut down your email programme, and don’t open it until your scheduled time for email arrives. You will likely be amazed how many supposedly ‘burning issues’ will have been resolved in this time, and how many circular conversations you will have avoided getting dragged into.

On the subject of email, it has the potential to be both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes it is a great solution to providing a quick response, but more often it can become one endless email trail which the world and their dog are copied into, going round and round in circles without ever reaching a conclusion. Challenge yourself with every single email you receive whether email is the right medium for this discussion. If it’s not, and a resolution would be reached more quickly by standing up and gathering the people who are needed to make a decision into a room, then be the person who stands up and does that. I have personally saved countless hours over the years by refusing to get trapped in an email loop and instead encouraging a face to face or phone conversation instead.

Action focused agendas

Meetings are a stalwart of an office worker’s calendar and, if we’re not careful, can fill the entire week. Be ruthless about the meetings you do and don’t attend. If you’re invited to a meeting and you can’t immediately see the value in you being there, ask the meeting organiser what it is that they need from you. It might be that it is information which can be provided in advance, without you needing to attend in person.

If you are chairing a meeting, ensure that you have an action focused agenda – which is circulated in advance to participants – and that you are absolutely relentless about sticking to it. Don’t let the meeting get derailed by small talk or in fighting. Think about the number of 15 minute sections of your day you and the meeting participants are spending in that meeting – and the combined cost to the organisation of you all being there. Ensure that the value which is derived from you spending time together outweighs the time and resource cost.

A framework of prioritisation

Have a to do list, and spend some time at the start of each week prioritising it and sketching out how and when you will tackle each item. Of course, it’s unlikely that you will necessarily be able to complete all of it as planned, but it sets out your framework of prioritisation for the week. If another task or meeting request comes in to compete with it, you will then be able to assess on a case by case basis whether it is higher priority than what you had already committed to achieve that week. If it is, then reshuffle your list accordingly. If it’s not, then politely decline.

You might at this point be wondering, but what if it’s my manager who’s asking me to do a task or attend a meeting? Surely I can’t tell them that I won’t be doing it? The simple answer is that of course you can. Do so by explaining to them what you already have planned to deliver in that slot, and the reasons why you believe it is higher priority. They should at that point then either understand why you will be focusing on that, or alternatively may provide new information which means that you reconsider your prioritisation. Either way, the important thing is that you are making a considered choice, and not simply blindly agreeing to something because it was your manager who asked.

The small stuff

Finally, don’t forget the small stuff. When it comes to maximising your efficiency, the small stuff can really start to add up.

Let’s suppose that every hour you go to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. It takes maybe three minutes for the kettle to boil. Chances are, that while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, a colleague will come in and you’ll strike up a conversation. By the time you’ve made your cup of tea and finished chatting, you might have used up as much as six or seven minutes. If you repeat that pattern every hour, you could have lost over 50 minutes of your day to tea making and polite conversation… that’s more than 10% of the total time available to you to deliver!

So what, you might think. If I’m measured on the hours I’m in the office, why should it matter if I spend 10% of them chatting and making tea? The reason it matters though is because it then creeps into how the rest of your day is worked. If you’ve lost 10% of your time, chances are you’re going to be working well past your official end time to get all of the work done that you need to do. You’ll very quickly become tired. Tiredness makes us more inefficient, as we start to lose focus. We lose more of our day to non-value adding activities. And so the cycle continues.

Getting to the output we need

Other small things we can do to significantly impact our efficiency are all about how we work. When I was sixteen, I taught myself to touch type. I can remember being laughed at at the time – typing already seeming an outdated skill – but in the twenty years since, I can’t remember a time when it hasn’t been useful. I type at a speed of roughly 90-100 wpm, compared to the average typing speed of 40 wpm. In practise, this means that this blog post of circa 1,500 words has taken me around 30 minutes to write – 15 minutes of planning and researching, and 15 minutes of typing. By contrast, someone with an average speed of 40 wpm would have taken half as long again.

Similarly, ensuring we are using the programmes available to us to best effect is vital when it comes to maximising efficiency. A classic example here would be Microsoft Excel. I have lost count of the number of times I have observed people performing manual calculations, when a simple formula would have delivered the same results in a fraction of the time. If there are any tasks we regularly carry out, we owe it to both ourselves and our organisations to assess – perhaps with the help of others – whether there is a more efficient way to get the output we need.

A more enlightened way of working

In summary, focusing on improving the efficiency of ourselves and of our organisations is vital if we want to be able to move to a new, more enlightened way of working. I fully believe that we will reach a time where the concept that people ever worked 7 or 8 hour days – plus overtime – will be seen as archaic. By prioritising efficiency and output, we will be able to reduce that time spent working – effectively delivering more for far fewer hours spent sat at a desk. Which is surely the holy grail of work – for both employers and employees alike.