AI can free us of busy work and usher in a new era of productivity

How much of their day do you think sales reps spend selling? All of it? Two-thirds? Maybe half? Nope.

The average rep spends just 35 percent of their time — fewer than three hours a day — actively selling. Where does the other 65 percent go? It’s devoured by internal meetings, travel, planning, and all the other peripheral, supporting, and administrative tasks they have to do. And here’s the thing: this trend isn’t unique to sales.

According to the Anatomy of Work Index 2021, knowledge workers lose 60 percent of their days to “work about work.” That’s all the stuff that takes time away from your meaningful tasks: “searching for information, switching between apps, managing shifting priorities, and following up on the status of work.”

Here’s a simple example of “work about work” that I experience all the time: booking a meeting.

To get time on someone’s calendar, I have to email them and ask about their availability. They have to come back with options. Then I have to check my calendar and go back to them. If either of us needs to reschedule, we start over. It’s email ping pong.

Sure, setting up one meeting doesn’t take a huge amount of time, but it all adds up to a couple of hours a week.

Our working lives are full of these little workflows that eat away at our days. Five minutes here and ten minutes there. With so much time lost to these sorts of tasks, it’s like we start work on Thursday. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We’re inching toward a future where technology, specifically artificial intelligence (AI), shoulders much of the burden. By alleviating some or all of our “work about work,” we can reclaim huge chunks of our days and propel us towards a new era of productivity. 

But we’re still some ways off.

The next battleground

We already have a lot of the technology necessary to prototype AI-powered workflows.

Automated schedulers like Calendly offer a new frictionless way to book meetings. Smart calendars like Clockwise promise to optimize your calendar events. Trevor and other task management services prioritize your workload. At a higher level, automation platforms like Workato and Aisera shoulder even more operational burden. 

But these services only hint at the potential of AI.

With a little imagination, it’s easy to see how impactful they could be.

Say you’re sitting in on a video call between me and my CEO, Craig Walker. Craig asks for a report on the company’s market penetration in Japan. Right now, I’d have to go and find it. But it’s conceivable that an AI-powered service could step in, locate the file, and drop a link to it in call chat.

The report’s interesting so I offer to pull together summaries for other key markets like the UK and Australia. When we log off, my AI assistant has already set up tasks for each of the reports and slotted dedicated focus time into my schedule.

What about if we still had agenda items left when we hit a hard stop? Right now, we’re playing email ping pong to book a follow-up. But an AI tool could automatically compare our calendars, find a suitable slot, and suggest a follow-up call.

For every moment of friction, there’s an AI-powered workflow to smooth it out. They would make our working lives simpler, reclaim countless hours, and leave us to focus on meaningful work.

I think we’re still a decade or so away from this sort of seamless experience. There’s unlikely to be one huge breakthrough that gets us there. Instead, we’re looking at gradual, iterative improvement.

Think about the information-finding service I suggested above. Right now, a lot of search functions use just document titles and metadata. If I go onto YouTube and type “Beatles guitar tutorial,” the site returns results based on video titles and tags. Initially, information-finding systems are only going to be as good as the labeled data, which usually isn’t very good.

That’s obviously not good enough to return the precise document we require.

Services would be far more powerful if they could index, not just titles and tags, but the content within videos, documents, and presentations. You could search for whatever is being said, rather than the document title. 

That is a huge challenge: You need to parse all of the information within every file. Solving that challenge only improves one AI-powered workflow. We have to take on these challenges across the entirety of our working lives. 

I think the investment is worth it, though. So do a lot of other big players. We’re seeing large technology businesses investing heavily in these sorts of tools — either developing their own or acquiring startups. I see it as the next battleground. Whoever ties enough workflows together to create a more efficient workspace is going to be the next big business. 

No more hours in the day

While working more can improve output, you experience diminishing returns. Every extra hour you work reduces your efficiency. Somewhere around the 45-hour mark, lost efficiency outweighs the benefit of working longer, leading to a net loss in output.

So we have a finite number of hours to play with. That’s why I think this is such an important opportunity. If technology can half the time we spend on “work about work,” that nearly doubles the time we have available for the stuff that matters.

Think about what you would do with an extra two or three days a week. What projects could you start? What skills could you learn? Could you mentor junior employees or contribute to your business more strategically? Perhaps you could cut back on your hours. If you’re not buried by busy work, maybe you could log off early or cut out Fridays entirely. 

I’m tremendously excited by AI-powered workflows. I’m already planning out how I’ll use my newfound free time. The only question is: what will you do with yours?

Image credit: HayDmitriy/

Dan O’Connell is Dialpad’s CSO. Previously, he was the CEO of TalkIQ, a real-time speech recognition and natural language processing start-up that Dialpad acquired in May of 2018. Prior to TalkIQ, he held various sales leadership positions at AdRoll and Google.

Author: Martha Meyer