Issue 131:2017 11 30: The easy way to increase productivity (Frank O’Nomics)

30 November 2017

The easy way to increase productivity –  stop cyberslacking!

2 ½ hours a day on a Smartphone restricts output.

By Frank O’Nomics

How many times during the day does the Internet or social media distract you from your work?  Before you click off, worried that this is just another such occasion please read on – the nation’s future may depend upon it.  The UK government and its agencies have spent the last few years trying to get to the bottom of the causes of low productivity. Poor education, a lack of fixed investment, obsolete management practices, and low interest rates (by helping the perpetuation of “zombie” firms) have all been cited as key drivers.  This week’s white paper outlining the government’s industrial strategy attempts to tackle many of the issues.  It cites “four grand challenges”, addressing the trends that will most affect British industry: the growth of AI, the shift away from fossil fuel energy, the future of transport (and its infrastructure) and the impact of an ageing society.  There is little doubt that these are big issues which need addressing but, in an internal Bank of England blog, Dan Nixon has raised a much simpler one, potentially a much greater drag on productivity: the amount of time that people are distracted by smartphone apps and news feeds. It is worth examining just how pervasive this problem is, and ways in which it might be addressed.

As long ago as 2010, researchers at Harvard found that, on average, people spent 46.9% of their time thinking about something other than what they are doing.  The point of the study was to highlight the emotional impact of this, in that it was seen as making people unhappy.  However, the other impact has been that people become less productive. A 2013 survey showed that people checked their phones 150 times per day (every 6.5 minutes) and more recent studies have the average smartphone user spending 2.5 hours a day (over 76 sessions) on their device.  Nixon points to the correlation between a decline in productivity growth and the tenfold increase in global shipments of smartphones over the last decade.  The use of such correlations is highly questionable, given the myriad of other influences on productivity growth, and it is very difficult to calculate the impact of such distractions, but it does seem clear that there is an epidemic of inattention.

There are two main ways in which productivity has been impacted.  The first is the obvious one of restricting the amount of effective time spent working, where people are using the internet and social media for personal purposes at times when they would normally be working – so-called cyberslacking.  Even 5 years ago the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that on average people were spending 1 hour of the working day on social media and that this was almost 2 hours for millennials.  It is hard to think that these levels have done anything other than increase.  There are also secondary consequences, with it taking 25 minutes to recover from interruptions and a negative impact on work quality.  The second impact is that of persistently lower productivity from the habitually distracted, the argument being that, the more you are distracted, the more likely it becomes that your mind will wander of its own accord.  Further, the increase in sources of information means that people are constantly scanning different providers (let me just check that I haven’t missed anything on “mailonline” in the last 5 minutes).  There is also evidence that distractions are making us less intelligent.  In 2005 a University of London study found that “workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.”

There do not appear to have been any serious attempts to calculate the loss of output from the decline in attention (although a US study estimated the loss to be $178 billion in 2008), but as a base case it could be at least 1/8 of the working day plus the time needed to refocus.  So what can be done about it?  Interestingly, for some years now investment banks have banned the use of mobile phones on dealing floors.  This was largely for compliance reasons, to avoid anyone sharing sensitive information (inadvertently or otherwise) with an unrecorded device, but it should have also helped the productivity of those bankers.  Other ways to address the issue involve encouraging people to single task and some companies have made a start by doing away with emails.  As long ago as the 1740’s Lord Chesterfield argued against the benefits of multi-tasking: “steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.”

There are those who argue that positive benefits are derived from allowing people brief periods not focused on work because it relieves boredom and stress.  Many of us would also argue that we have always had distractions in the workplace.  People have discreetly done the crossword at their desk (and more recently Sudoku) for years and, when there is a sporting event taking place, people will always be trying to find out the score – these days they use the internet, but previously they would have dialled a phone commentary or found a radio.  Further, the Internet and the smartphone are global phenomena, and so the issues do little to explain why the UK compares so poorly in international league tables of productivity.  Why, for example, do companies in the US produce 20% more output than those in the UK for the same effort?  There is, then, a great need for the initiatives outlined by the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, in this week’s industrial strategy document.  However, that does not mean that we won’t catch up more quickly if we put that phone way, ignore unimportant emails and disable links to anything other than work-related web sites. Now, get back to work!


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