Here’s the dirty little secret about knowledge workers: the amount of time they spend at work but not working is a lot higher than anyone wants to admit.

In between answering phone calls, checking e-mail, social networking, blogging, Twitter, e-commerce, Google-ing, watching videos and reading the news, many people spend hours being unproductive in terms of actually producing work for their employee.

According to a new study by consulting firm Basex, the average U.S. worker spends as much as 28% of their day doing non-work stuff, which works out to $650-billion of lost productivity a year.

At face value, 28% is a staggering number. It works out to more than two hours of the work day – and likely doesn’t include going out for lunch. But is today’s knowledge worker unproductive or do knowledge workers operate differently?

My sense is most knowledge workers are productive; it’s just a different kind of productive. Rather than bearing down for hours and hours, many knowledge workers do short bursts of ultra-productive activity before taking a digital break. At the end of the day, they do what needs to be done.

For example, Chris Sacca, who used to head up special initiatives with Google, conceded at a conference recently he only really works one to two hours a day – but those one to two hours are extremely intense and productive.

The other side of the productivity coin for many knowledge workers is work doesn’t all happen between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. In fact, the line between work and non-work has blurred. if you’re checking e-mail or doing work-related research at 7 a.m. or 10 p.m. or putting in an hour or two of work on the weekend, how does that fit into the productivity equation?

While there’s always room to be more productive and many companies are seeking ways to keep their employees focused, knowledge workers are productive but taking an unconventional approach.

For more, BusinessWeek has an article on the Basex study, while the New York Times has a story on how some tech companies (Intel, Google, Microsoft and IBM) are working together to make their employees more productive by launching tools such as e-mail filters to deal with digital overload.

According to the NYT, a Google software engineer recently introduced E-Mail Addict, an experimental feature for the company’s e-mail service that lets people cut themselves off from their in-boxes for 15 minutes.

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