3 Ways Busywork Is Crushing Your Career — And What To Do About It


woman working


Maureen Berkner Boyt
Maureen Berkner Boyt
The sign-up sheet to help with the office picnic goes up, and you’re ready to lend a hand. Not so fast, sister. Have you thought through how busywork like this is impacting your career? Because it is.
Women are expected to be helpful, to take the notes, volunteer at the parties, plan and clean up after the meetings. Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter even coined a phrase for it: "office housework." All that helpfulness comes with a price tag for your career.
1. It Eats Your Time
Like it or not, we have a finite amount of time with which to get things done. Ever since seeing Avatar I’ve longed for a blue body-double who would continue working for me as I slept. Until that sci-fi concept becomes a reality, there is only so much we can cram in a day. If you’re using up your precious hours and minutes making a cupcake run for your co-workers, that’s eating up time you could have spent on career-enhancing work.
2. Your Deliverables are Impacted
Let’s say you're spending about 3% of your time on busywork that your male co-worker is spending on his strategic priorities. That doesn’t seem like a huge deal, until you calculate the impact over a year. If you work 40 hours a week (I know, as if!), and take two weeks of vacation, you’ll have spent 60 hours - a week and a half – of your year working on activities that are not driving your results! Yikes. Imagine how another week and a half of time spent our your strategic deliverables would positively impact your results.
3. Your Professional Brand is Compromised
Who has more leadership credibility - the person running the meeting or the person taking the meeting notes? Unless you actually are an executive assistant, you don’t want your professional brand tied to administrative tasks like note taking and meeting planning. If you’re always the one volunteering or relegated to these types of tasks, your brand is taking a hit.
The good news is that it’s easy to still be seen as helpful and not let office housework negatively impact your career. Here's what you should do:
Set a goal & track your time.
Half the battle is in understanding how much time you’re spending on busywork right now. Track your time for a month, and you’ll likely be surprised how much time you’re spending on activities outside your job description. Determine what amount of time you’re willing to spend, and hold yourself accountable to that target.
Using the same 40 hours a week, two weeks vacation scenario, if you’re willing to spend 1% of your time chipping in and helping on non-strategic activities, you’re looking at roughly 30 minutes a week.
Be strategic.
Not all office housework is created equally. There are some company meetings and events that it might actually benefit you to participate in. Will you get exposure to key leaders or clients? Does it offer an opportunity to build relationships with people in areas of the business you want to know more about? Will it allow you to participate in meetings that would otherwise be closed to you? Those are the busywork activities to target.
Suggest practices of inclusive teams.
Most leaders don’t realize the impact of office housework on the women that work on their teams. I have yet to work with a leadership team who doesn’t want to change it once they’ve been made aware. Be proactive and bring the topic up with your boss or team. The next time you get together, discuss how women are unconsciously expected to take on busywork and suggest the practices of inclusive teams. Suggest that instead of office housework activities such as note taking, meeting planning and event coordination being filled on a voluntary basis, the team rotates the responsibilities.
You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to change the norm.
Mo is the Founder of The Moxie Exchange, a training and peer mentoring organization for companies who want to recruit, develop, promote and retain women and create inclusive workplaces. She’s an advisor to CEOs of the nation’s fastest growing companies and is the founder 5 successful businesses. She also been known to sing loudly, dance badly and curse like a sailor.


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