Turning This Year's Cost-Cutting Into Next Year's Revenue

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The arrival of Autumn means many things: colored leaves, football, holidays coming. It also means it's time to slog through your 2011 budget. Here is the “play by play” for getting more out of less, to turn this year’s cost cutting into next year’s revenue.

For businesses that have weathered the ongoing economic storms, the holiday season offers hope for a brighter new year. Companies have survived by downsizing, cutting budgets, and trimming staff. While the savings have helped them survive, such businesses now must increase productivity with a fewer workers.

Getting more out of a smaller workforce is a challenge, and one made more difficult by the work environment itself. This is especially true in open office environments where office noise significantly impacts worker productivity. According to ASID, most managers think conversational distractions aren't a big deal in their department. They may want to think again.

Consider the time wasted by a single distraction, say a couple co-workers passing near your desk, or using the copier nearby. How long does it take to identify and dismiss the distraction and then refocus on the task at hand? A minute? Two? How many times a day does an average knowledge worker in an open-office plan endures such distractions? A widely publicized study by Basex shows that workers lost about 2 hours a day to distractions, both of the technical/gadget variety (think email or instant messages) and the human kind (conversations two cubicles down, for example).

The numbers are significant. Take a typical office of 100 people. They all make $40,000 a year, and instead of being distracted 2 hours a day, they're only distracted 7 minutes per day. Factor in the total cost of an employee’s benefits, taxes, paycheck, etc. those 7 minutes per worker will probably cost this typical business more than $75,000 this year. (Speech Privacy Systems offers a calculator here: http://www.speechprivacysystems.com/reducing-distractions/high-cost-of-little-distractions/ )

Still think conversational distractions aren't a problem?

The Solution

Realistic solutions may not seem obvious. After all, "no-talking" policies seem like a throwback to kindergarten, and in the end, one of the reasons workplaces moved from walled offices to cubicles was to allow for greater collaboration and teamwork. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater isn't exactly progress. Here are some tips to help businesses easily -- and inexpensively -- become more productive without adding a single employee:

Four Ways to Decrease Conversational Distractions

  •     Set aside areas for collaboration and "flash meetings."

Most companies have underutilized space used primarily to house rarely-used tables. Many innovative companies have repurposed these areas by setting up a whiteboard for small, quick meetings. The lack of chairs makes them more likely to be highly productive and brief - and it moves workers away from congregating at a cubicle, distracting everyone not involved in the impromptu meeting.

  •     Move office equipment further from cubicles.

The printer is an obvious culprit in the fight against conversational distractions. Joe Worker sends a document to the printer, where he finds a couple other workers waiting for their print jobs to come out as well. While Joe waits, he talks sports, office gossip, or even about the project he's working on - but if the printer is up against a cubicle wall (as is often the case), even work-related conversations are robbing others of productivity.

  •     Avoid speakerphone at all costs.

This one seems like a no-brainer, but the attraction of keeping your hands free to pull up something on the computer while you're on the call is often too big a temptation for many workers. Avoiding speakerphone in open office areas is not only a productivity saver, but it's just good office protocol. If you must use speakerphone for a conference call, use an office with a door. The person on the other and nearby coworkers will certainly appreciate it.

  •     Invest in sound masking.

Sound masking is often overlooked, but it can literally cover up or eliminate some or all of the above problems. Covering provides the greatest impact per dollar spent, as opposed to absorbing or blocking sound with materials and furniture. Sound masking comes in two varieties: individual masking solutions, which are good for an individual worker in his or her single office or cubicle, and enterprise-level sound masking systems, which treat an entire department, floor or building. Obviously the latter is far more effective, but for many workers, those conversational distractions go unnoticed by executives in offices with doors and walls.

The Bottom Line

Study after study shows that conversational distractions are a big drain on most businesses' bottom lines. While many executives will no doubt continue to (literally) put their fingers in their ears and ignore the problem, others are no longer willing to lose that much money every year - particularly in an uncertain economy.

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Bruce Davidson
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