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The modern learner

The modern learner – overwhelmed, distracted and impatient. According to learning guru Josh Bersin, only 1% of a typical work week is all that employees have to focus on training and development. That’s only 24 minutes, in a 40 hour week.

Perhaps, we have more time than we believe and a little discipline would clear out some of the distractions and interruptions that frustrate our day.

Years spent working with corporate clients has shown me that while employees are doing longer and longer hours, productivity does not increase with time spent.

2016 Eurostat figures show that the country with the longest average working week is Greece, at 44.6 hours per week; and the shortest is Norway, at 39 hours per week.

And which country has the highest GDP in the world per hour worked? Yep, Norway, at €75. Greece comes in at 31st with a GDP of €32.77 per hour worked.

In the UK the average employee toils away for 42.8 hours a week, while our near neighbours the Irish put their coats on half an hour earlier each day, at 40.5 hours.

Meanwhile our American cousins might as well bring a sleeping bag to the office – working 47 hours. A US compliance lawyer once remarked to me, “that’s what I like about your British, you take your weekends”.

Well, yeah?

The more I looked at my clients the more I questioned the productivity of the office environment. Were all these meetings necessary, could the conference calls be more efficient, and how much of the desk time was spent on productive activities.

No one could be 100% efficient at work; we are not machines. Ignoring the “shock stat” that our attention span is rather less than that of a goldfish, the academic view is that we are unable to keep focused attention on a task for more than 20 minutes.

We need to lift our heads, do something else and get back to it later. Coffee breaks, water cooler conversations and general chit chat are important parts of the working day.

It’s almost 100 years since Frederick Taylor published his book The Principles of Scientific Management, in which he proposed that productivity could be increased by breaking jobs down into tasks and simplifying workflow.

But his ideas, which led to the “stopwatch and clipboard” approach to management of work, have waned as the modern worker has been given greater autonomy in what they do.

Breaking the working day down into repetitive tasks that can be measured and optimised might make sense in a factory environment, or on service tasks that have to be performed again and again, but creativity and inspiration do not come measurable by the metre.

If you want employees to be creative and inspired, can you expect them to sit at a screen all day, working at maximum productivity? No, say researchers at the University of Toronto. In a 2014 study, they showed that employees who took a proper lunch break were more productive than those who grabbed a sandwich at their desk.

Also under scrutiny is the 40+ hour work week. While the majority of businesses are still wedded to the 40 hour working week, plus, plus, there are plenty of examples, particularly with services companies, where the working week is reduced to 30 hours. Or even flexibly working, or have no fixed hours in the employment contract at all.

It is claimed that employees of these companies deliver the same productivity and profitability, with greater satisfaction and wellbeing.

But what about that spare 24 minutes to spend on training?

In 2014, Draugiem Group conducted a study to identify the perfect work pattern. Using the DeskTime time tracking productivity app, they analysed their employees work patterns, and asked why were some people more productive than others.

And the answer? Not longer hours in the office; instead the answer is bursts of focused activity, followed by short periods where you do something totally different.

Their survey got very precise. The perfect productive work pattern turned out to be 52 minutes of focused work followed by 17 minutes of rest.

It was also important what you did during your rest period. The most productive employees were those who totally defocused – no checking mail or surfing the web. Instead the advice was, take a walk, chat to colleagues, read a book.

They didn’t actually say, “do some training”, but you can see where I am going.

So next time you see your employees standing round the water cooler, or catch them sharing cute kitten pics, don’t sweat it. You’re just witnessing the cutting edge of modern productivity thinking in action.

And if you are a Learning and development manager why not suggest people do their learning in these breaks; they certainly add up to more than 24 minutes a week.Paul Healy has worked in the learning industry since 2003 in sales, learning consultancy, and programme management. He specializes in assisting companies with change management and innovation agendas.


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