2 Ways Manual And Repetitive Tasks Kill Workplace Innovation


Shayne is co-founder and CEO of Blooma, a data-driven solution for the commercial real estate industry. Connect with Shayne on LinkedIn.

According to Zapier’s 2021 state of business automation report, 94% of the U.S. knowledge workers surveyed spend some portion of the day performing repetitive, time-consuming work. Included in this were manual tasks like data entry, document management, invoice management and copying data from one source to another. When you consider that today we have cars that can literally drive themselves, this percentage seems absurd (as does the fact that we’re still copying and pasting on the job).

These types of manual and repetitive work generally consume massive amounts of time, crushing overall productivity (that same Zapier survey found that 44% of employees at small- and medium-sized businesses said they did not feel highly efficient during the day). But there’s a bigger problem, and it may not be as obvious: Monotonous work is a creativity killer. And if you’ve been keeping up with the news, having disengaged employees is not a great strategy for keeping them around (in 2018, Korn Ferry found that the top reason for looking for a new job was being bored and needing a new challenge). Not only this, but Gallup research shows that employees who feel engaged at work are more productive than their peers and are more likely to drive business profitability in the long term.

Take commercial real estate underwriting, for example. The pre-flight portion of this process is almost entirely manual today (that means sorting through spreadsheets, documents and financials), and it can take anywhere from several hours to several days to complete. This is not high-value work. It’s data entry. And banks today that are already operating on under-resourced teams are using their talent to copy and paste instead of providing them the opportunity to be strategic and think outside the box.

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Fortunately, automation technology is seeing rampant growth across many industries. If the slogan 10 years ago was “there’s an app for that,” today it would be “we can automate that.”

If you’re on the fence about adopting new technology, I encourage you to consider the following before making your decision. Here are two unexpected ways that manual and repetitive work can impact your bottom line.

1. It inhibits creative problem-solving.

Much like the assembly line, repetitive tasks can constrain those doing them to follow a strict procedure in the name of efficiency. And generally, doing things this way serves us well because it saves us from having to expend a lot of energy doing a task that doesn’t require it (imagine if every time you wanted to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you had to stop and recall each step, tool and ingredient). To simplify our lives, we rely on heuristics (typically without knowing it) to easily recall processes and use familiar tools to streamline repetitive tasks. In simpler terms, we call this being on autopilot.

This becomes problematic when we think about functional fixedness, which explains the phenomenon where these shortcuts often have the detrimental consequence of limiting our ability to see beyond the task at hand or think outside the box. Being bogged down in repetitive work isn’t just boring; it stops us from asking questions like, “Is there an easier (better, faster, cheaper, etc.) way to do this?”

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2. It decreases individual performance.

Work stress is something we all live with, but it turns out that there is, in fact, an optimal level of stress required to reach peak performance at work. Consider the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

In short, the law describes that our performance on the job drops significantly in cases of no to low stimulation and extremely high stimulation. Basically, no arousal results in a lack of productivity due to listlessness, and too much arousal results in a lack of productivity due to anxiety or high stress. More importantly, while repetitive and manual tasks might be easier in many cases, that’s not necessarily a good thing. As it turns out, we humans generally like a little bit of challenge at work.

It gets even more interesting when we layer on the concept of incentives, which is almost always central to the conversation at work. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink wrote about how extrinsic rewards (e.g., performance bonuses) really only serve to motivate employees for what is known as algorithmic tasks or those that don’t require creative thinking. As a matter of fact, using external rewards to incentivize productivity tends to backfire a lot of the time.

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Of course, we all want to be compensated for our work. I’m asking leaders to consider how we think about compensation in relation to the types of work people are doing. As I understand it from Pink’s book, if we want people to be more creative and engaged in their work, they need to be challenged and interested in what they’re doing. The bottom line is that it’s not likely to happen when they devote time to mindless tasks.

What is the solution, then? Put simply, we as leaders need to help bring people back to the “art” of their jobs. That means, when and where it makes sense, empowering them to step away from monotonous tasks and focus their energy elsewhere instead. I’ve started and invested in several technology companies that aim to do just that.

I’m not suggesting that you blindly start subscribing to every technology out there in the name of innovation and efficiency. Instead, I’m proposing that you take a closer look at your company’s technology stack and ask yourself whether you’re truly setting your staff up for success. Big things happen when we enjoy what we do or, at minimum, feel challenged at work. Who knows, your next great idea could come from someone who might be too busy to dream it up right now.


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