Bringing Work Home? Something's Wrong

Last Updated Jun 23, 2011 3:38 PM EDT

What's the more likely number?:
  1. 80 percent of workers bring work home on a typical workday.
  2. 80 percent don't bring work home on a typical workday.
Turns out the right answer, thank goodness, is No. 2, at least according to recent research highlighted in a report by the Bureau of Labor Statics.

"Most of those who do so are male, older, white, and married, but not all are office workers: 3 percent of the taker-homers are in construction and maintenance, the same percentage as in service jobs," according to an Harvard Business Review newsletter posting on the subject. "The most common reason for taking work home is to finish tasks or catch up."

These findings suggest that 20 percent of workers either don't have enough time in the work day to finish their work, or they are not productive enough. So I take that to mean that if you are taking work home on a regular basis something is out of whack. To find out what's wrong, start by taking these three actions:

  1. Inventory your work week. Using a diary or log, track your time by 30- or 60-minute intervals. Use the results to determine your time-sinks. Events to search for are things such as private Web surfing sessions, attending meetings where you provide no value, and giving in to constant interruptions from colleagues and e-mail -- you need uninterrupted blocks of time to work most efficiently.
  2. Ask your peers. What do other people in the office do? If everyone is taking work home, then the corporate culture is that this is an expected norm--if you don't like it find a new job. But if the practice is rare among your colleagues, something is out of whack with either your job responsibilities or work abilities.
  3. Review your job description. In many offices a job description fits reality on only one day: the first day you report to work. After that duties get expanded, reduced or shuffled, often informally, and they pile up unnoticed. Are you still doing the job you are supposed to be doing? Are you doing other jobs that your employer doesn't officially recognize?
If the answer that comes back from these investigations is that you are truly not productive enough, there are many programs available on time management and other skills that can help you up your output. Negotiate to get out of meetings where you are not needed. Cut down the personal stuff. Don't check e-mail every five minutes. Don't be afraid to let a ringing phone roll over into voice mail so you can stay focused on the task at hand.

If the answer you find is that you have too much to do, either learn to delegate or talk to your supervisor about helping you prioritize work. She should be happy to help--it's better than dealing with a burned out employee, which is where you are headed.

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(Photo by Flickr user Marc from Borft, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.