How to Be Productive at Work Without Sacrificing Creativity

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Employee with a creativity idea during a business meeting.

An often-quoted line from the classic movie The Shining expresses a common view about productivity versus creativity in the workplace: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The dilemma of how to help workers be more productive without sacrificing their creativity is a challenge for managers who want to increase their teams’ output without sacrificing the innovative, inventive thinking that drives companies forward. The key is finding the balance between the two.

Google is famous for achieving this balance with its 20% rule. Implemented in 2004, Google’s rule lets employees spend 20% of their work time on any company-related passion project they choose. The benefits to employees are prolific:

  • Empowerment to use their time in a way that excites and inspires them and to make important decisions
  • Collaboration among people who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to engage with one another
  • Invention of new products (Gmail sprang from the 20% rule)

Productivity by the Numbers

Research supports management practices that focus on how employees spend their time. Gallup’s 2016 “Q12 Meta-Analysis Report” explored how employee engagement relates to performance outcomes. It showed that “business units with high employee engagement have … 20% higher productivity than their bottom-quartile counterparts.”

A 2014 Gallup Poll study revealed that employee engagement alone isn’t the most effective way to increase output. Actually, a combination of the following three factors is the key to productivity, according to the study: “Employees who hit the trifecta of tenure, engagement, and talent perform 18% higher than the average employee and 35% higher than a worker who goes zero for three.”

What Threatens Productivity?

In addition to a rigid, task-driven approach and micromanagement, distractions are notorious for eating away at productivity, and they bombard workers from all sides. The constant pinging of social media notifications, visitors walking through the office, traffic or construction noise outside, and even intangibles like life stressors or conflicting priorities can all disrupt the workday, sidetracking employees and causing them to lose focus. With so many competing factors at play, managers are often at a loss as to how to help employees be more productive at work.

To start, it’s helpful to recognize activities that can sabotage worker productivity.

Social media has the potential to disrupt workflow if notifications constantly tempt workers to go off-task. Texting reduces productivity because it results in workers dividing their attention between multiple tasks in addition to the work at hand. Interruptions from coworkers may seem insignificant, but time lost to small talk or answering questions can consume a substantial amount of the workday. Eating while working is a distracting form of multitasking, so leaving the desk to get a snack or eat lunch tends to boost productivity in the long run.

Can Too Much Efficiency Crush Creativity?

Managers who don’t consider workplace balance and instead focus solely on efficiency tend to impose strict procedures and systems. This management choice requires employees to churn out a lot of work in a short time. Such managers may not realize creativity doesn’t thrive under such unforgiving conditions. Creativity increases when people engage in new activities and try new experiences.

According to Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, “Creative enterprises rarely involve steady and measurable progress. Instead, being creative involves trying lots of different possibilities, struggling down several blind alleys before finding the right solution.” Good managers realize the creative process takes time, and this understanding informs their management style.

Ways to Boost Employee Productivity and Creativity

Creating an innovation culture starts with how employees are encouraged to spend their time. Although it seems counterintuitive, literally walking away from a task for a short break can help workers be more productive at work. Doing so calms nerves that are frazzled by intense efforts to meet challenging productivity goals. To build such breaks into a worker’s daily routine, managers can implement strategies like the Pomodoro Technique ― a time management method that encourages people to work in short sessions of about 25 minutes with a timer set for breaks of about five minutes.

In the long term, for team members to care about their company, be happy at work, and embrace growth and innovation, it’s important for managers to consider how to help their employees gain insight into how they spend their time.

Balancing Productivity and Creativity

Every manager’s team faces different challenges, so it can take some experimenting for them and their employees to find the perfect balance between productivity and creativity. When managers understand the productivity-creativity dynamic, workers can discover how to be more productive at work without losing their ability to be innovative and inventive. For more information on management techniques for how to be more productive at work, read about Ohio University’s online Master of Business Administration program.


Recommended Readings

A Look at MBA-Related Programs: What Is Business Management?

CEO vs. Owner: The Key Differences Between the Two High-Level Positions

Assessing the Costs of an MBA



Fast Company, “5 Ways to Grow Your Creativity and Productivity at the Same Time

Forbes, “New Study Shows Correlation Between Employee Engagement and the Long-Lost Lunch Break”

Forbes, “Productivity Tips to Try When You’re in a Slump”

Gallup, Q12 Meta-Analysis Report

Harvard Business Review, “Engage Your Long-Time Employees to Improve Performance 

Harvard Business Review, “To Get More Creative, Become Less Productive”

Inc., “How Google’s 20 Percent Rule Can Make You More Productive and Energetic

Inc., “In an 8-Hour Day, the Average Worker Is Productive for This Many Hours”

Live Science, “Focus! Distractions Kill Both Time and Quality”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Average Hours Employed People Spent Working on Days Worked by Day of the Week