Employee Productivity: The Data Behind How We Waste Time

Team Management

We’ve all been there. You didn’t sleep enough, your day is dragging on, and you just can’t get yourself to focus, so you find ways to make the time pass - usually by wasting it.

It’s a natural human response, but this productivity loss in the workplace is becoming increasingly detrimental to companies everywhere. And despite firms implementing performance software and hoping for a quick fix, the problems are often rooted at a deeper level of the company's culture.

A 2014 survey by found that 89% of workers admitted to wasting time at work every day. Of these people, 61% claim to waste between 30 minutes to an hour a day. While this may not seem like much, it can add up to 5 hours a week or 260 hours a year - per employee.

Of course, the occasional break is necessary, and many people view frequent breaks as a way to recharge, but Marsha Egan, productivity coach, claims that even small disruptions “have an outsized impact on output”. Egan found that it takes the average person at least 4 minutes to get back on task after a distraction. Thus, the more distractions, the lower employee productivity.


Everyone wastes time, but why do we do it? Research found that 53% of people take “breaks” because they think it actually increases their overall productivity, 20% due to boredom, 8% from lack of incentive, 7% from dissatisfaction at work, and 2% from low pay. It’s interesting that more than half believe that their breaks serve to improve their performance, when in reality it is quite the opposite. Scheduled breaks like lunches are great for employee productivity, but frequent distractions are simply focus inhibitors.

The next question is when is the most time being wasted, and when is employee productivity at its highest? The same study found that Tuesday mornings are the most productive while Friday afternoons are the least. In general, the most work gets done between the hours of 9-11 am.

Finally, who tends to waste the largest amount of time at work? Findings show that women waste slightly less time in the workplace than men (87% vs 91%). 91% of single workers waste time, compared to 88% of married employees, and 85% of divorcees.

It is a common myth that the younger you are, the less focused you tend to be, which creates an ideology that younger workers waste more company time. This survey found that the biggest offenders are actually those aged 26-32, of which 95% waste time daily. This number lessens to around 90% for people aged 18-25 and 33-60, and drops down to 78% for people over the age of 60.

Based on these findings, your ideal worker is a divorced female aged 60 years or older. These are of course unrealistic qualities to seek for, so what are employees wasting their time on and how can you minimize it?


It comes as no surprise that the internet is today’s #1 method of wasting time in the workplace. Be it on computers or on their smartphones, employees are constantly exposed to infinite platforms of distraction.

In 2016, Harris Poll conducted a survey of 2,186 HR Professionals and 3,031 full time US employees to find out where time is most wasted. Of these 5,217 people, 82% keep their smartphones within view at all times while at work, and 55% think cell phones are the biggest productivity killers in the office.

How can you fix this problem as an employer? Most people assume that blocking access to non-work related websites should do the trick. Unfortunately, most employees have smartphones, whose access you can’t control. Trying to forbid cell phones in the workplace can lead to resentment and rebellion from younger employees. Instead, set guidelines of when and how often it is appropriate for them to reach for their phones. This collaboration will make for a happier and more productive workplace.

As with everything, it’s important to know your audience. If you notice an employee wasting tons of time but still completing their tasks, it might be worthwhile to give them a bigger workload. Another increasingly popular option is prioritizing work accomplished over hours put in. Every employee works differently. Instead of an inforced 9-5 workday, let your employee work within a time frame that best suits their work ethic. Where some may be highly productive in order to complete tasks early and go home, others may enjoy the schedule flexibility and be more productive when taking multiple breaks.


A successful workspace should be a social one. With engaging company cultures on the rise, you want your employees to enjoy working together. This being said, there should be a limit to the amount of socializing taking place during work hours.

Socializing stands as the second biggest time waster in the workplace. Harris Poll found that 39% of employees are distracted from gossiping with one another, 27% from co-workers dropping by to chat, 27% from smoke or snack breaks, and 20% from noisy co-workers.

Permitting headphones in the office is a great way to limit these distractions. Music acts as white noise that will help keep your employees focused, limit noise distractions, and make them less likely to chat up a co-worker.

Another study found that 45% of workers are more likely to spend longer completing personal tasks at work if their boss is away or out of line of sight. What does this translate as? Be present. Checking in on your employees and being on site can make a huge difference in how free they feel to slack off. Organizing the office as an open concept space can also help improve employee productivity. After all, who doesn’t feel more compelled to be productive when surrounded by people who are?


While this may be surprising to some, meetings are the third biggest time-wasters, and the top mandatory employee productivity inhibitors. From including workers in meetings which don’t apply to them, to not following an efficient structure, meetings can do more harm than good.

A study of meetings in America found that approximately 11 million meetings occur in the U.S every day. Professionals who frequent such weekly meetings admitted to daydreaming (91%), missing meetings (95%), bringing other work to the meeting (73%), and even falling asleep (39%).

An unproductive meeting is long, generates few results, doesn’t accomplish an objective, and creates frustrations at all staff levels.

So how do you ensure your company isn’t overdoing meetings? Rather than organizing mandatory in-office meetings for everything, try summarizing certain issues with an email or a phone call. For instance, instead of company wide meetings, weekly status reports from each department can provide the needed information to keep everyone updated without wasting unnecessary work hours. The Harvard Business Review states that an effective agenda is crucial, it must “set clear expectations for what needs to occur before and during the meeting. Have a specific goal and get it accomplished in as little time as possible while involving only the directly affected members.

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