THE BLOG
10/01/2014 02:51 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

From Bad to Worse: Two Terrible Productivity Ideas

While we may be past the worst of the Great Recession, many companies still feel the need to stretch the human resources they have as far as possible. It's no surprise, then, that we're still experimenting with ways to pump up productivity while deflating costs.

This pressure has resulted in some progressive ideas like employee empowerment and engagement, productivity diamonds that often prove their value daily. But there are others that have never really gotten beyond the charcoal stage, though they linger on because influential people aren't convinced they've failed.

Consider multitasking, a mostly self-imposed effort to keep up with increased information flow. Job descriptions still require "the ability to multi-task effectively." Frustratingly, most of us aren't built to juggle multiple tasks at once, shifting focus from one to the other in succession: we're meant to focus doggedly on one task until it's done. About 3% of us can multitask effectively, but odds are you can't. The 3% may represent an adaptation to our work environments, especially in the face of the electronic revolution, but don't assume you'll ever be able to rewire your brain completely. It can take up to half an hour just to get back on track when you flip over to a new task.

I believe there's something even worse: open-plan offices. Originally hailed by no less than the New York Times as a wonderful way for employees to stay in closer contact, thus cross-fertilizing ideas and boosting camaraderie, Cubicleland has become perhaps the most-mocked business idea in centuries. When I'm teaching corporate seminars, participants always complain that noise, constant distractions, and never-ending interruptions take a toll on their productivity. For many introverts, it's a deal-breaker. The biggest potential advantage I've seen is cost-savings.

As for camaraderie, Jason Feifer points out in a 2013 Fast Company article that the ways we're forced to block out distractions in open plan offices actually isolate us more than ever, because we hide behind walls of ear buds, music, and ambient sound. There's really no other choice when you need to think, unless your company provides quiet rooms, or you can go hide somewhere or work from home.

There are other poor productivity ideas bedeviling the workplace, but these two take the metaphorical cake. Think about how productive your team really is the next time you take a look them in their quads, lost in their own little noise-canceling worlds as they try to juggle conference calls, email, and interruptions, while desperately trying to finish the report they've been working on for weeks, all the while trying to avoid eye contact and keep buzzing cell phones from jangling their nerves.

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is The Productivity Pro®. For over 20 years, Laura's talks have helped business professionals execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.