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The Future of Work Issue

Erase the busy work that slows down your corporation: Here’s how to get it done.

How Cisco, Reddit, YuLife, and TheSoul Publishing make room for productivity.

Reported by Megan Carnegie

Illustration by Jordan Bogash

There are just not enough hours in the day.

Amid a deluge of pings, far too much time is occupied with waiting for sign-offs, status updates, workflow processes, and general admin work, which slows growth and spurs disengagement. To tackle work about work, major companies are using a multi-pronged approach.

Work about work, or “busy work”—the activities that take time away from meaningful work—was a significant issue before the pandemic. It’s sometimes invisible, often insidious, but always frustrating. And it’s on the rise. In 2019, over half (55%) of UK office workers said activities they don’t consider part of their job occupied a large amount of their day. However, with the explosion of communication channels since 2020, knowledge workers are shouldering even more unnecessary and mundane tasks to keep pace with what’s happening. 

According to Asana’s 2023 Anatomy of Work Global Index, roughly 60% of a person’s time at work is spent on work about work and not on skilled tasks or strategy. Over a year, across the globe, the average knowledge worker spends 103 hours in unnecessary meetings, 209 hours on duplicative work, and 352 hours talking about work.

Rather than focusing on the skills for which they were hired, energy is directed toward communicating when or how the work will get done, searching for information in a web of complex systems, toggling between apps, juggling shifting priorities, and chasing the status of work. This can negatively impact employee satisfaction, productivity, and engagement. Not to mention timeliness: 88% of workers report blown deadlines as a result of work about work. 

60%

How much of a person’s time at work is spent on work about work

There is a better way. The Workback looked at how large organizations eliminate time-draining tasks and improve efficiency, affecting employee fulfillment.

Below are strategies to help your organization get those hours back.

Boost calendar intentionality 

Let’s start with public enemy number one: Meetings. According to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, there were 60% more remote meetings per employee in 2022 compared to 2020. That represents a jump of five to eight meetings per week per employee, and such epic calendar bloat is getting in the way of work itself. A Harvard study confirmed what we already knew—92% of workers believe meetings keep them from their regular professional duties. “For large organizations, the volume of hours spent in meetings creeps up because there’s more process, layers, and often more bureaucracy,” says Lauren Berkemeyer, CMO at the UK-based life insurance tech company YuLife, an Asana customer.

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To avoid the slippery slope of inefficiency, anyone who calls a meeting is encouraged to send an agenda to attendees ahead of time, including the context of the meeting and what it seeks to achieve.

When coaching her managers, Berkemeyer recommends they spend ten minutes at the start of each week identifying which of their scheduled meetings will require them to play an active role. If they’re not a critical attendee, they call or message the organizer to ask whether they’re needed. Just asking the question can save two to three hours.

The most productive gatherings have fewer than eight people, and overly inclusive invites with many non-critical attendees can hinder progress and collaboration. 

“Normalizing opting out of meetings is a win-win; I become more productive, but so do the meetings I leave.” —Lauren Berkmeyer, CMO at YuLife

“Normalizing opting out of meetings is a win-win; I become more productive, but so do the meetings I leave,” Berkemeyer tells The Workback. Her ideal work pie chart comprises 20% meetings, 10% spontaneous phone calls to discuss a specific topic, and the rest of the week focused on core work.

Companies should also be intentional about when meetings are scheduled and how long they last. At Asana, No-Meeting Wednesdays have been in place for a decade.

At Reddit, an Asana customer, “Work Better Fridays” encourage teams to keep Fridays free of meetings, which boosts productivity and employee energy. 

Ian Rabagliati, Product and Experience Director at Eurotunnel, advocates for meetings that last 25 or 55 minutes: “That five minutes of space at the end of the meeting forces people to stop and think about whether we’ve covered everything so that you don’t just spend five hours sat in back-to-back without leaving your chair,” he told ZDNet

Shorter meetings—and being willing to cut them short if they’re not going anywhere—creates breathing space and reduces the likelihood that work will need to be repeated or recommunicated later.

Challenge internal communication norms

Applying maverick strategies to internal communication has paid off for the digital media company TheSoul Publishing, an Asana customer, which has ditched glossy PowerPoint presentations to convey ideas to teams and colleagues.

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Instead, employees have clear instructions titled “How to Submit Your Awesome Idea” and do so in written form using work management tools.

“If the benefits of an idea are calculated and clearly presented in our systems, it’s more valuable than asking busy people to adhere to tedious design details,” Aleksandra Sulimko, chief human resources officer at TheSoul Publishing, tells The Workback.

Design slides aren’t the only traditional working strategies the publishing company has cut out—its 2,500 remote workers across 70 countries communicate asynchronously without internal meetings or emails. Relying on project management tools like Asana creates clearly defined actions so the team can stay hyper-focused on the task at hand.

With more widespread remote work happening globally, a raft of digital communication tools have emerged, but best practices on their use vary. A less conspicuous form of remote communication is personal statuses on messaging apps, which can signal availability, working hours, and in some companies, even moods. Encouraging greater clarity here can regain precious time.

YuLife made a “Not Feeling 100%” status option for its internal company messaging app for when someone is not in top form but still well enough to work. “It’s a signal to communicate that you may need an extra pair of hands today or some extra support,” says Berkemeyer. Using status indicators gives greater visibility on where a person is and the work they can do, which she believes promotes a culture of support and teamwork. “From a productivity standpoint, it prompts greater awareness early on so the team is prepared and can share the load,” explains Berkemeyer. “It eliminates the need to drop that person continual messages without receiving a reply that in itself saves time.”

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Changing goalposts = regular re-appraisal

Busy work is an evolving problem. How it manifests and the hurdles it creates will continue to change in different ways and for different businesses. However well-intentioned the addition of a new tool or replacement of an old one might be, new snags and frictions will arise during the adoption phase. 

Assessing possible fixes and hacks can eat away at the time, so leaders should create dedicated time and space for teams to review and evaluate. 

Cisco Systems, an Asana customer, uses a range of tech solutions in daily work, incorporating artificial intelligence and machine learning to make working experiences smarter and more intuitive. 

“Help people focus on what they love doing most, help them to thrive, and create resilient, high-performing teams.” —Jack Naidoo, People and Communities Leader, Cisco UK & Ireland

“Beyond video conferencing, we use tools for all kinds of collaboration—from better document sharing to enabling spaces to become more connected and smarter, which removes silos, reduces workload, and improves employee efficiency,” Jack Naidoo, People and Communities Leader, Cisco UK & Ireland, tells The Workback.

However, it’s not a “one-and-done” conversation at Cisco. Teams revisit every quarter to determine what is helpful and what is not and adjust from there. 

“Weekly check-ins also create an important space for teams, wherever they’re working, to share their loves and loathes of the week, what their upcoming work priorities are, and what support they need,” says Naidoo. 

This functions as a powerful source of information for team leaders to align work and guide individuals on where they can reduce work about work and play to their strengths instead. 

“Find ways to streamline processes that otherwise increase workload without adding value and take time away from core work,” advises Naidoo. “This will help people focus on what they love doing most, help them to thrive, and create resilient, high-performing teams.”

This article includes Asana customers, partners, or employees. The Workback’s policy is to be fully transparent about the business relationships between our sources and Asana, Inc. We have identified those instances within the article as well.