Canadian firms turn to technology to improve staff productivity

Many North American companies are scrambling for the antidote to declining worker productivity and asking if technology can play a role in minimizing “time wasting” activities and boosting employee effectiveness.

The issue has become even more critical recently. Canadian business labour productivity fell 0.2 per cent in the second quarter of 2008, according to Statistics Canada.

This drop has come on the heels of 0.6 per cent declines in the previous two quarters, making it the longest series of consecutive quarterly declines since 1990.

Surveys in the U.S. reveal a similar trend.

For instance, a Microsoft Corp. study, last year, found American workers, on average, spend 45 hours a week at work, but describe 16 of those hours as “unproductive.”   

Experts advocate several strategies to counter dwindling productivity. Most fall under three major categories: better technology, better tactics, or a blend of both.

Not surprisingly, software behemoths such as Microsoft Corp. are emphasizing technology’s role in countering major time wasters – such as unproductive meetings.

Respondents to a Microsoft survey last year said they spent 5.6 hours each week in meetings, and 71 per cent of them thought those meetings weren’t productive.

Given this situation, Microsoft executives say, a software suite that enhances collaboration and interaction between employees is just what the doctor ordered.

They cite applications such as Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2007 and Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 as proof points.

With these applications “users can deliver a presentation, work together on a project, edit documents and collaborate on whiteboards via Web conferencing, while meeting attendees participate from their PCs,” said Bryan Rusche, unified communications and collaboration product manager at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga.

He said Office Live Meeting 2007 helps companies conduct virtual conferences at fraction of what it would cost to hold face-to-face meetings – and it saves the hassle of travel.

Rusche said Microsoft uses Office Live Meeting 2007 internally to help its own employees collaborate across different offices, and interact with partners, customers and other stakeholders.

“It’s enabled us to minimize travel and improve overall productivity.”

Office Live Meeting 2007 also helps users avoid e-mail pitfalls, such as the possibility of a message being misconstrued, said Rusche citing the findings of a recent Microsoft survey.

Thirty-two per cent of respondents to that survey said they have had an e-mail misinterpreted, and 66 per cent needed to spend additional time explaining the context or tone of a message to a colleague after sending it.”

By contrast, the interactive and “immersive” aspect of LiveMeeting is something that Microsoft highlights.

LiveMeeting, says the Microsoft site, integrates multiple communications channels such live and recorded video, chat, slide and application sharing, VoIP and PSTN audio, and audience feedback tools.

Rusche noted that LiveMeeting also boosts productivity and saves employee time by integrating with programs across the 2007 Microsoft Office system – including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Groove, and SharePoint Server.

For example, he said, if someone receives an e-mail message in Office Outlook 2007, he or she can view “presence information” about the sender and start real-time communication from within the message, avoiding the need to switch applications.   

But productivity coaches suggest that before you turn to time-saving technology tools there’s a prior step – taking an inventory of how you spend your time, and cleaning up the clutter.

“Not realizing how much time you waste is the biggest time management mistake people make,” said Peggy Duncan, personal productivity expert. She said people often underestimate the time it will take them to accomplish their tasks.

In her book, The Time Management Memory Jogger, Duncan has a checklist of time-wasters.

“First, track your time for a few days to see where it’s going,” she suggests, “Compare how you spend your time to your personal and business goals to see if they match.”

Duncan says when working with clients, the first thing they do is spend two weeks having a massive clean up – a throw-out campaign to end clutter.

“Then we create organized systems anyone can follow. The results are immediate.”

Only after that should technology be used to she says.

“Trying to develop solutions before you get to the root of the problem, especially buying new technology because it’s the latest thing is the wrong way to start,” says Duncan.

However she admits that new technology can also be a contributor to a decrease in productivity.

“Reading useless blogs and other social media are taking people’s attention away from their core work,” she says and findings support her.

According to a survey by Salary.com and AOL.com, 44.7 per cent of respondents said surfing the Internet was their biggest workday time-waster. It was by far the most common answer.

One technology antidote to lost productivity from idle Web surfing at work is provided by an application dubbed BeAware from Philadelphia–based Ascentive LLC.

BeAware Corporate Edition is positioned as a tool that helps companies increase employee productivity, eliminate time wasting and protect private company data.

It works by tracking all employee PC activity through real-time monitoring of e-mails, Web surfing, chat and program usage. The tool, Ascentive says, allows managers to get a complete view of what their employees are doing on their computers – online and off.

Ascentive says BeAware Corporate Edition enables businesses to see which applications employees are using, what documents are being edited and printed, and view all PC and Internet activity, whether encrypted or unencrypted.

But another expert says technical solutions can only go so far.

“It is difficult to create a technical solution that reliably identifies productive behaviour,” says personal productivity coach Matthew Cornell.

For instance, he notes that surfing the Web – which is getting such a bad rap – can sometimes be “highly productive.”

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