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What's Killing Your Office Productivity?

Bookmark and Share The genius that happens every day in the offices of the world requires a certain amount of focus. Unfortunately, most offices are awash with both physical and mental distractions that pull our attention away from the task at hand. To help you identify common pitfalls, we've zeroed in on the top five productivity killers in the modern age. Better still, we gathered expert advice on ways to block out the noise and get to work.

Social media

Rieva Lesonsky, CEO of GrowBiz Media & com, admits her primary distraction is self-inflicted. "Social media can take me off task, especially Twitter. (I'm addicted.)"

It happens to the best of us. You're at a lull in your work, and you get that nagging sensation that something amazing might be happening on Facebook. Why not take a quick peek, just to make sure the world's not passing you by? These brief breaks may seem harmless enough, but making compulsive social media checks during the day can add up to hours a week of lost time.

Instead of checking Facebook or Twitter throughout the day, try scheduling your social media time after lunch and limit it to 15 minutes. Having a special time slot for checking out the latest hijinks of Grumpy Cat will leave the rest of your day free for more productive endeavors. And if you really can't help trying to scratch that itch, consider blocking your most visited social websites with your browser's security settings.

A crazy commute

If you live or work in a large city, the morning commute can be an exercise in extreme frustration. What should be a 15-minute drive can turn into an hour or more of unproductive stress during rush hour.

Fortunately, thanks to cloud computing, working remotely is easier than ever. With web-based software and collaboration tools, office workers can get everything done even when they're miles away from home base. More and more, corporate leaders are warming up to the idea of telecommuting as remote employees report higher productivity and morale. Even if you can't work remotely all the time, you may be able to slightly shift your work schedule so you're not traveling at rush hour, or just handle the first hour of your workday from home before you hop in the car.

Loud-mouthed colleagues

Who can't relate to this scenario: you're just settling in for some hard-core focus time to bang out a monthly report when the guy in the next cubicle starts in on a high-volume recap of last night's episode of Game of Thrones—and you haven't seen it yet (spoiler alert!). Working in an office can be great for collaboration and easy communication, but not so great when you're doing focused solo work. Diplomatic requests for quiet might buy you a few minutes of peace, but let's be realistic: some people do not possess an inside voice. Treat yourself to a pair of noise-canceling headphones and crank your favorite background tunes or soothing sounds from a white-noise website like Noisli.

The unfocused workday

You may have a truckload of work, but without a clear plan of attack, you may leave the office that night wondering what you got done and why you spent time on the wrong tasks. Ramon Ray of Smart Hustle Magazine zeroes in on the root of the problem. "Lack of clear understanding and planning. When I'm clear and highly organized, things flow!"

Jeff Marcoux, CMO lead for Worldwide Enterprise Marketing at Microsoft, agrees. "Randomization is the killer of productivity." To get his house in order, he spends the first 10 minutes of his day making an explicit to-do list, following guidelines set out in this Harvard Business Review article. If you have trouble organizing your tasks, check out a mobile productivity tool like ToDoist or LeanKit.


It's impossible to avoid in the modern workplace, but email is as much a hindrance as it is a help. Andy Karuza, owner of BrandBuddee, notes, "being 'too connected' can be a major productivity killer. This is because task switching wastes lots of time from having to reset your train of thought and pick up where you left off on the previous task."

Answer emails and social media messages together at the top of the hour. Knock them all out at once and then wrap yourself up again in that Excel spreadsheet you were working on.

Your email inbox forces you to switch focus from your task at hand, wasting precious minutes of your targeted energy. Karuza suggests taking a structured approach. "Answer emails and social media messages together at the top of the hour. Knock them all out at once and then wrap yourself up again in that Excel spreadsheet you were working on."

You may also be doing work that is better done by a machine. Try to automate some basic email tasks to help you prioritize your inbox so those sprints of replying to email are as efficient as possible.

Whether you're working from home or at the office, there's always something there to distract you. Identifying your own biggest distractions is the first step to eliminating them.

Helping Accommodate Pregnancy in the Office

Bookmark and Share Although many women work through their pregnancies without difficulty, some of them with physically demanding jobs or complicated pregnancies might seek accommodation at some point. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not define pregnancy as a disability or disorder, but as a natural process related to reproduction.

If pregnancy is not a disability, are pregnant women entitled to accommodation? What about women with pregnancy-related impairments? Are they covered by the ADA Does the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) entitle pregnant women to the accommodations they need to continue working during pregnancy? Are there state laws that entitle pregnant women to accommodation? These are the types of questions are being examined by the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) and other women's legal organizations. According to NWLC, both the ADA and the PDA often require reasonable accommodation for pregnancy.

Let's start with the ADA. The regulations interpreting the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) state that pregnancy-related impairments can meet the definition of disability if they substantially limit a major life activity. Pregnant employees with impairments that meet the definition of disability will be entitled to an accommodation under the ADA. Because the ADAAA has broadened the definition of disability to include many temporary and less severe impairments, more workers with pregnancy-related impairments will now qualify for direct coverage.

In addition, the interaction between the PDA and the ADA will often result in a heightened duty to accommodate even pregnant employees who do not meet the ADA's definition of disability. NWLC argues that the PDA requires employers to treat pregnant women at least as well as other employees with similar limitations in their ability to work. Because the ADA requires employers to accommodate a wider variety of medical conditions, pregnant women will often have similar limitations to people who are entitled to accommodations under the act - which means that they'll be entitled to accommodations as well. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has made it clear that the ADA requires reasonable accommodation of a temporary back injury that leaves an employee unable to lift 20 pounds for a few months. Because pregnant workers must be treated as well as employees with similar work limitations, a worker who has been instructed not to lift weights of more than 20 pounds because of her pregnancy must also be accommodated, according to NWLC.

To ensure that employers' legal obligations to provide accommodations are unmistakable, the NWLC and a broad coalition of groups from the health, disability, and women's rights communities are urging Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) - draft legislation which states that pregnant women are entitled to reasonable accommodations that can be provided without undue hardship to an employer. These are the same types of accommodations that are available to people with disabilities under the ADA. In addition, some state laws already give pregnant workers' rights to workplace accommodations, as described in a recent report by Equal Rights Advocates.

Accommodating pregnant employees is also in the financial interest of employers. The NWLC provides several sound business reasons why employers should accommodate their pregnant employees in the same way that they do for workers with disabilities. Data show that the costs of these accommodations are likely to be minimal, and that providing them will have bottom- line benefits to the employer: including reduced workforce turnover, increased employee satisfaction and productivity, and lower Workers Compensation and other insurance costs.

Despite the legal and financial arguments, some employers are still not accommodating pregnant employees. This is why the EEOC recently identified "accommodating pregnancy-related limitations under the ADAAA and the PDA" as a priority area for its enforcement efforts through 2016.


Salary Reevaluation

Bookmark and Share In an interesting Freakonomics podcast, authors Levitt and Levine discuss whether expensive wines are worth the price. Their conclusion: They are not. Here's an example of an interesting experiment. Participants were asked to rate two different wines. All they knew was that one was a $10 bottle and one was a $50 bottle of wine, when in fact it was the same $20 bottle. The participants overwhelmingly chose the $50 bottle as having the better taste. Interestingly, some participants asked the testers if it could, in fact, be the same bottle of wine. When told that they'd have to decide for themselves, most of them reached the “logical” conclusion that they had to be different wines because of their different pricing – so they rated the more expensive wine as better.

Here's the point: We often value things more simply because we pay more for them. If this holds true for wine and cars and dates, then why wouldn't it be true for employees? Employers have tried to finagle with compensation systems from Day 1. What's the right mix of compensation to help generate the greatest return on investment of an employee or workforce? Because it's a mistake to underpay or overpay employees, how do we decide just how much to? Here's an easy three-part solution:

1. Identify the market rate. What does the “average” employer pay for a certain level of employee? You can learn this by going to the statistics at BLS.gov, your state labor agencies, sites such as Salary.com, or your local employers' group. You might also have industry-related associations and can hire some competitive intelligence to provide these rates. In my experience and opinion. to pay anything more than 25% above grade is essentially throwing away money. For example, in the fast food industry if $8.50 is the norm, it might make sense to pay $10.50, as In-N-Out Hamburger does in California, or the premium Costco pays its employees. However, it doesn't make sense to pay even 1% above grade if it's not going to buy you a more productive employee. Perhaps there are other ways to attract productive employees. You might be able to attract them by being the most outrageous or flexible or cutting-edge workforce.

2. Think team bonuses. When I perform employee surveys at companies, I always ask whether employees prefer incentives based on individual performance, on that of a team, or of the entire company. Over the years, I've found that where there's a great deal of trust, people prefer team-based incentives. If trust is low, they prefer individual incentives. Of course, we trust those people to whom we're closet. As an owner, if I wanted to help generate trust, I would offer team-based incentives. As the saying goes, “A rising tide floats all boats.” I would recommend a bonus (say 10% of net profits) and then distribute it based on employee's gross compensation. For example, if one employee makes $50,000 per year and one employee makes $25,000, the person making $50,000 gets twice the bonus. This is a simple formula that avoids a lot of wasted time and energy trying to finagle 2% here, 4% there, etc. If an employee displays outstanding performance, the chances are that they're in line for a raise or promotion. This is how you manage going forward.

3. Award people immediately on an individual basis when they go the extra mile. According to Barber's 1001 Proverbs, “The greatest benefit is the one last remembered.” Don't underestimate the power of: (a) rewarding what you want to reinforce, and (b) doing it immediately. These rewards need not be expensive; they're as much about acknowledgment as they are about money. Of course, a little bit of cash helps too.


Office Risks Reality Check

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I just finished listening to an interesting podcast by the Freakonomics authors about the risks that gun use presents. For example, they indicated that the odds of a gun causing a person's death are about 1 in 10,000, while the chances of a backyard swimming pool causing a death are some 100 times greater. Does this mean that we should focus on swimming pool control and forget about gun violence? Although I doubt that anyone would suggest this, it does give food for thought.

For the past dozen years, I've been in a catbird seat observing the incident of employment practices liability exposures and lawsuits. My conclusion: Employee Liability Practices Insurance cannot cover the major personnel practice exposures facing businesses. For example, there's no risk mitigation for making poor hires, fostering low productivity, triggering high turnover, or failing to have workers play like a team. The frequency of such exposures, and their expense, far exceed those associated with employee lawsuits.

Let me share another statistic. In 2012 the U.S. had one of the worst years ever for mass shootings, with approximately 700 fatalities (four times the annual average toll). As you might expect, these sensational and painful cases grabbed plenty of headlines. However, in the same year, roughly 20,000 Americans committed suicide using guns, killing some 11,000 other people in the process - and garnering little, if any, media attention.

The same thing holds true for workplace risk exposures. How many articles are you going to read about the impact of bad hires or productivity left on the table every day? Where's the drama in that? However, a, juicy lawsuit in which a sexual harassment claimant gets a multi-million dollar verdict will get plenty of press.

Likewise, more than half of the discussions at any HR conference will involve compliance exposures. Meanwhile, the greatest risk to your company's survival has little or nothing to do with compliance litigation. In my 30 years as an attorney, I've seen only a handful of small businesses go under because of employee lawsuits - and hundreds of companies of all sizes go out of business because of poor management practices.

As with the gun/swimming pool example, we need to understand the relative probabilities of the various risks employers face.

None of us need the horror of mass shootings or nasty employee lawsuits. These events make for good press (as they say, "if it bleeds, it leads.") When we run 75 mph as a society, it's hard for us to connect without doing so through a mass pity party. The media taps into this social reality on a daily basis with sensational headlines and lead stories, making it all too easy to divert business owners and managers from focusing on significant employment risk management issues.

Food for thought...