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The Culprit of Productivity: Work About Work

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

In a business all-hands meeting a few weeks ago, Google CEO Sundar Pichai made headlines by stating that overall productivity is not where it needs to be—which caught my eye as a former Googler.

There are real concerns that our productivity as a whole is not where it needs to be for the head count we have. [We need to] create a culture that is more mission-focused, more focused on our products, more customer-focused. We should think about how we can minimize distractions and really raise the bar on both product excellence and productivity.

The statement left me with more questions than it answered in a world full of corporate speak: What is productivity? How is it measured internally? And how does Wall Street's definition of productivity correspond with that shared amongst Google employees?

Despite the unanswered questions, I have a statement of my own to declare: All companies can improve their productivity. (Bold claim, I know.)

Ali and I regularly train others in remote productivity, and we always start with the same exercise: asking the group to define productivity. Folks often mention to-do lists and time management techniques, which are all valuable, but talk more about the HOW rather than the WHAT.

According to the dictionary, productivity is "being able to generate, create, enhance, or bring forth goods and services." Once articulated, it's easier to see what's preventing employees from being able to bring forth goods and services at work.

The common culprit? "Work about Work"—defined in Asana's Anatomy of Work Report as "activities such as communicating about work, searching for information, switching between apps, managing shifting priorities, and chasing status updates."

"Work about Work" eats up ~60% of our time at work, leaving only 40% to be spent on skilled or strategic work. In fact, their analysis concluded that nearly three months of an employee's time per year could be deleted without impacting outputs.

According to Asana:

"... every week workers are losing an average of nearly three hours on unnecessary meetings. Every day, they are bombarded with 32 emails. Every hour, their attention is fractured between disconnected tools and having to constantly switch between them.
Work about work is an entrenched part of modern organizations and is still the biggest barrier to productivity— one that organizations shouldn’t take lightly. Too many workers are stuck in this black hole, sucked into a world of small tasks that add up to an enormous burden."

While you can't change the system around you overnight (even if you're the CEO of Google), you can start by auditing your time at work into three categories: Work About Work, Skilled Work, and Strategic Work. Then dive into the Work about Work tasks and see what you can eliminate. We're sure you can find a better use for those non-productive three months each year than sending emails.

Reflection Questions:

  1. How do you measure your productivity at work?

  2. Which of your "work about work" tasks generate little/no value?

  3. How can you shift or stop those tasks?

Download the 2022 Report here:


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