March 10, 2016 Erin Hall

Surprising Keys to Improving Employee Productivity

Does the thought of giving your employees the freedom to work how and when they want make your blood run cold?

For many managers, it might. But more studies are indicating that employee success and business productivity are actually strengthened by flexible work schedules and more frequent break times. 

ways to be more productive


Productivity Linked with Taking More Breaks & Flexible Schedules


Flexible Work Schedules

A recent article from BenefitsPro shows that a flexible work schedule isn’t actually a threat to productivity, and that the resulting boost in employee happiness makes for even more productivity. And a recent in-depth article from New York Times Magazine shows how work flexibility improves employee happiness and markers for success.

When employees are given more freedom in their work schedules, they’re able to find balance with other priorities in their lives, making the work they do more focused. Typical ways to provide work schedule flexibility include:

  • Telecommuting options
    • Give workers an option to work from home full time, or on select days throughout the month
  • Flexible working hours
    • Go beyond 9-5 and let employees set hours that work best for them
  • Unlimited vacation time
    • Some companies offer unlimited paid vacation days, resulting in no loss of productivity or cost, but with a big boost in morale

Related: Telecommuting Policies: 5 Rules HR Managers Should Include


More Frequent Breaks

One suggestion for creating a more productive workday has been to follow the 52:17 rule. This idea comes from a study of the time tracker DeskTime that shows that the most productive workers tend to work for a stretch of 52 minutes, followed by a 17 minute break, and then repeating the cycle throughout the workday.

The idea is that during a schedule like this, workers are able to have hyper-focus for a sprint-like period of work where they can get a lot of work done. Follow this up with a short rest period, and then hit the ground running again. The Huffington Post created a great infographic of what this day would look like:


Improve productivity with flexible schedules

source: Huffpost Business

Sounds good? Well, don’t start setting your timer too soon…

A team at Fast Company tried this schedule with largely unsuccessful results. In their experience with this work schedule, workers felt they weren’t able to fully get immersed in their work before it was time to take a break. Additionally, when workers were in a position of having phone calls and meetings scheduled, as well as urgent deadlines to meet, it wasn’t feasible to immediately drop all work at the 52 minute mark.


So Does 52:17 Work…Or Not?

It’s possible that the findings of the original study are not a prescription for how to work best, rather they’re merely an example of one thing productive workers happen to do.

In other words, just because that schedule works best for those most productive workers, doesn’t mean the answer is in the schedule. For example, in order for those productive workers to make the 52:17 schedule work, they’re able to compartmentalize their tasks, they’ve organized what they’re going to do before they get to their next work session, and the work they do can be allocated in ways that they want. Some of those aren’t available to every worker.

Perhaps it took those productive workers an adjustment period to hit their stride with this kind of schedule, and Fast Company’s one-week trial doesn’t replicate the original experience.


52:17 rule for working and taking breaks


Your Next Steps

The magic ingredient isn’t to require a strict schedule of 52 minutes of working for every 17 minute break. But encouraging workers to take several small breaks throughout the day when they can is a great first step. If employees can get a walk around the block, a healthy snack, or a stress-reducing massage during their breaks, it’s even better.

And while a flexible work schedule might not be an option for every worker in every industry, it’s worth finding ways to increase some work schedule flexibility, to ensure employees’ work-life balance remains balanced.

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