Image Credit: FreeImages.com/Juha Pesonen

Image Credit: FreeImages.com/Juha Pesonen


The tea/coffee vending machine installed on the floor has not been working for past 3 days. The facilities team has called the contractor, who is just too busy to send someone to fix it right away. As a result, some of the staff have decided to cut down on their tea and coffee intake.

Isn’t that just fabulous? A perfect solution to all caffeine induced evils?

Errr…not really.

Let me show it to you with help of a bit of mathematics. I know, usually coffee and maths don’t go well together. But bear with me for a minute.

Let’s assume for a minute that there are 100 employees on the floor (usually there are 300-400 in bigger offices). Every employee takes a 10 minute coffee break 4 times a day, making it a 40 minutes of tea/coffee break per employee per day. And if we assume that 75% of the employees do consume tea/coffee religiously every day they’re in office, we will have 3000 minutes of man hours of breaks a day (40 minutes x 75 employees). This roughly translates into 50 manhours spent non-productively.

I know, you’ll argue that employees do need a break, that breaks enhance productivity, and it also enhances morale. I’m all for it. I’m a firm believer that employees do and must take regular breaks. Multiple benefits ensue. But that’s for another post. For the current discussion, let’s get back to mathematics.

Now, let’s assume that the vending machine on the floor is dead. Let’s further assume for a minute that it dissuades some of the employees from taking a tea break (they still will go for a break, but may end up standing next to the watercooler!). For argument sake, let’s assume that only 50% of the employees will take a break to have tea on another floor. And let the fun begin.

Let’s first look at the time involved. Moving from one floor to another costs time (and money as well, if employees use elevators). Let’s factor in a measly 2 minutes for this additional commute one way. So the first casualty is increased time. You may appreciate that adding 4 minutes bumps up the total time by 40%. But let’s first go through the entire scenario.

Secondly, the waiting time required to hang around, to get their turn (yes, coffee machines too get queues!). Again, let’s add a meagre 2 minutes to the process.

Then comes the real sucker. If you have travelled to another floor to have a decent cup of tea/coffee, wouldn’t you rather spend some more time at it? I do not have any statistics here to prove this empirically, and can’t really give exact numbers here (and not too much data is available out there which explores time taken by someone on having a coffee on anther floor!!) So I’ll play it by the hunch, and add another 5 minutes to the entire bit.

Now let’s calculate.

2 minute commute to another floor + 2 minute wait for coffee + 10 minutes normal tea time + 5 minutes extra tea time + 2 minutes commute back to desk = 21 minutes

You may say….so what? Well, if we were to now do calculation, it looks something like this

21 minutes x 4 breaks x 50 employees (50%) = 4200 minutes (70 man hours)

Well, there you have it. A broken coffee machine on the floor can, on a conservative estimate, shave off additional time on employee productivity. Add to that the frustration that employees have to go through, many agonizing minutes or hours fretted over such trivial matters, that can totally non-measurable dimension to this small time folly.

And you may again say….so what?

So here’s the point. Even something as small as a broken coffee machine can throw productivity in an office out of gear (and that too due to all legitimate reasons!). Look at the following list, and think about productivity losses

1. Employees forced to work on old computers with slow or dead processors
2. The craze for free software (yes, you got THAT!). Apart from the fact that employees willtake time to learn the freeware, operating speed is the first casualty.
3. Restricted number of rest rooms, lavatories etc. where employees have to queue up
4. Restricted seating arrangement for having food, forcing employees to schedule their lunchbreaks to get some place to sit and have their meals peacefully
5. Creating a single cafeteria / canteen which is located in a ‘central’ area (read, far way for every one!)
6. Non functional accessories like printers, photocopiers
7. The ‘good practice’ of having a limited number of dust bins (yes, you got THAT too!)
8. Limited parking, place holders, lockers etc. Anyone who comes in once all the places are filled, has to do a complete merry go round just to settle down in their seat comfortably.
9. The practice of allowing mobile /remote access to mails / documents only above a certain employee band/grade/position (yep, throw in this one as well)

You get the drift. I’m not listing down any ‘fluffy’ things here, like ‘employee motivation’, ‘engagement’ or ‘morale’. I’m talking about hard, countable, tangible loss of employee time.

Again, the point is not about ignoring what is right. If any of the above actions save an organization a tangible amount of money that is more than the employee productivity being lost, that’s fine. But losing it all just in the name of ignorance is, well, criminal.

Unfortunately, at most places, it’s a combination of multiple such factors. Throw in the usual productivity killers like meetings, conference calls and emails, and you may actually end up getting employees to contribute only about 20-25% of their true potential. But while you may not be able to do away with things like meetings and emails, other things don’t need to hold your team’s productivity to ransom.

Some simple steps that can help you identify such fixable productivity killers

1. Queues – Do you need queues in office? Really??
2. Longer than usual time for basic tasks (taking a print at home takes 2 minutes, what is taking 20 minutes here?)
3. Team members avoiding a specific simple activity like photocopying
4. Hearing laments like ‘things can’t improve here’ or ‘we can’t do this because of lack of ___’

Our inability to grasp the larger impact such small things can have on employee productivity is something that keeps such things happening repeatedly in most offices. If we become aware of these killers, and are able to take care of such things, the benefits and impacts can be both immediate, and significant.

In parting, let me share an experience. One employee waited for 4 weeks to get a RAM upgrade on her laptop. The reason? She had to justify need for a higher RAM. The cost of the RAM was Rs. 3200. But because of lower RAM, every time she opened a software, the loading time was 5-7 minutes. This was shaving off about 90 minutes every day from her productivity. With the salary she was earning, the company lost approximately Rs. 20,000 on her productivity alone, apart from the daily frustration and irritation she went through during the process. And by the way, she was lucky to get an approval. Most others in the office didn’t even have permission to own a laptop, and were working on 3-5 year old desktops, with a blanket ban on any upgrades.

Is this happening around you? What other productivity killers have you come across in your office?

We’d love to hear from you.