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5 tips on how to prevent “gray work” that hampers your productivity and career

It’s harder than ever to stay productive while sifting through multiple apps, documents, and emails to find that one piece of information you need to complete a project. This process is called Gray workand is a huge, time-consuming barrier to productivity – outdated and distributed technologies and tools that employees use just to get by. This causes employees to perform manual, repetitive and tedious tasks in between work that actually translates into results.

Quickbase explored this phenomenon in a new survey, looking at the state of productivity in the workplace today. The study found that being busy does not mean being productive and that 54% of workers surveyed in the US and UK say it is more difficult than ever to be productive in their daily work, further evidence that the way we work is not is to work longer – the study shows. Other key findings include:

  • Employees are overwhelmed by technology. 94% of respondents said they feel overwhelmed by the amount of software they have to use every day to do their job (up from 87% in 2023).
  • Employees have too much manual work. 74% of respondents say that the amount of physical work has remained the same or increased compared to last year.
  • Employees have less time to work effectively. 58% say they spend less than half of their typical workweek doing meaningful work that drives results.
  • It’s hard for employees to get what they need. 45% of respondents say they spend more than 11 hours a week searching for information across their organization.

According to Ed Jennings, CEO of Quickbase, we are approaching a productivity cliff. When I spoke to him via email, he told me that their recent Quickbase survey found that 54% of employees say it’s more difficult than ever to be productive. “Your teams want to do their jobs well and make great contributions to the organization,” he says. “Yet they are stuck with disconnected technology tools and systems that simply don’t work. They spend too much time on menial work, sifting through multiple applications, documents and emails looking for the information they need to do their job.” The same study found that 45% of respondents spend half of the workweek (over 11 hours) per week searching for information throughout the organization. Jennings believes that eliminating Gray Work is perhaps your best chance to build a competitive advantage, adding that it makes it harder for teams to get work done faster, more efficiently and with maximum impact.

The CEO shared five tips on how to ditch gray work and increase productivity:

  1. Change your definition of work. The old, structured ways of working – characterized by linear tasks and defined deadlines – are gone, declares Jennings. “The old is being replaced by a new, dynamic way of working. It is complex, involves multiple stakeholders, asynchronous work streams, is organizationally or globally distributed, and is subject to rapidly changing trends and competing (and sometimes conflicting) deadlines influenced by competitors, regulations, and financial or political trends in the global economy. The CEO insists that the technology supporting this process be adapted to the scale and speed of his teams. “Therefore, low-code/no-code application development platforms are well-suited to this new, dynamic way of working,” he notes. “Almost anyone can use them. Moreover, thanks to the low level of technical knowledge required – especially in the field of artificial intelligence – employees can quickly and easily create applications tailored to the everyday way teams work.”
  2. Redefine productivity. Jennings emphasizes the importance of learning to recognize the difference between productivity theater (activities and tasks that look like work but are simply “busy”) and actual productivity – where each activity is elevated in the service of focusing on truly impactful work, with less distraction attention and less digressions. “In industries like construction and manufacturing, everything starts in the field. Finding ways to connect employees on-site or on the shop floor with those on the back office will ensure that valuable project and process data is not lost. Adding mobile capabilities means you can capture data in real time where work is happening. The benefit is access to actionable, real-time insights that help generate and sustain momentum,” he says.
  3. Take advantage of automation and collaboration. Jennings cites artificial intelligence as a growing part of the technology world, bringing with it the promise of automation and intelligence. “The race is on for companies that are struggling to figure out what to do about it to make their business faster, more competitive and more efficient,” he says. “Grey work is a break that consists of tedious, redundant tasks, blind searches for information and manual processes – the absolute opposite of impact. Valuable progress comes when the way you work matches the results you want to achieve. This is the path to Dynamic Work Management: getting data where it needs to be, removing the process of tracking information through Excel or other manual systems, and reducing time spent on tedious tasks.
  4. Integrate and simplify. According to Jennings, today’s drive to digitize has created a complex web of solutions, adding that whether purchased or built, the “one tool to solve just one problem” approach makes every task, every project, every day become more difficult for employees. “The result is lost productivity and increased costs, not to mention the lack of visibility and flexibility required to tweak, customize and connect core systems for maximum efficiency,” he notes. “And given data fragmentation across dozens of SaaS solutions across most enterprises, it’s almost impossible to do anything with the emerging AI capabilities that everyone wants to adopt. The trick is to bring all your data together in one streamlined, harmonious and centralized view, enabling faster decision-making, greater confidence and meaningful impact.
  5. Prioritize strong, robust data management. Jennings quotes the saying that “with great power comes great responsibility,” continuing that unlocking productivity and connecting data requires strong governance that is more than just a logical security measure. “Treat it as a competitive advantage by giving employees the data they need to achieve better results easier and faster,” he advises. “Strong management also bridges the gap between IT and day-to-day business. This provides the visibility and control needed to maintain compliance standards, while increasing confidence in the data and information behind projects.” He predicts that as AI enters every industry, management will have peace of mind knowing that the AI ​​providing the data is robust. This ultimately provides the foundation for organizing, streamlining, visualizing, connecting and sharing the information your employees need to succeed.

Jennings insists that informal work is not an abstract idea. “It’s a construction company harnessing supply chain variability to build iconic structures for our cities; or a manufacturing organization improving efficiency to make its industry more sustainable; or a local government official streamlining grant processes to provide communities with needed social services,” he concludes. “With the advent of artificial intelligence, the mission to eliminate informal work could pave the way to realizing the potential of artificial intelligence to amplify the influence of every person, especially in organizations where technological progress is slow.”