Five Ways to Improve Worker Productivity and Avoid Doom Scenarios
I was talking with an executive at a mid-size company recently who had a large project fail. She had not gotten the necessary red flags from her team. In addition, her company was wrestling with worker productivity, return to office issues, and how to make sure that the employees were performing. There was plenty of available data. But there was the question of what data to trust and what data needed further inspection. How can you possibly understand all the work in your company?
As a project manager, I tend to look at work through the lens of project management. And so, this conversation was especially interesting to me. Unfortunately, this company did not have a strong history of following standard project management practices, such as risk management. They talked about risk management, and they kept a few records of those conversations, but they glossed over a lot of the steps that professionals recommend.
In this blog, I’ll discuss five ways to improve worker productivity and better understand all of the work that is happening in your company.
1. Define what kinds of projects need to go through an approval process
I talk about this some in a book that I am launching. Not all projects are equal. Some projects might be limited to one department and a handful of people. Other projects touch massive numbers of stakeholders and may cost you a fortune.
Suppose the HR team wants to expand their offices into a nearby, currently unoccupied space? All that really needs to happen is that some office furniture needs to be moved, some cables and tech devices need to be set up in the new area, and some signage needs to be changed. The cost is insignificant. Do executives need to know about this?
How do you decide and communicate to everyone in the company which projects need executive approval? That’s a decision that only you can make. Once you make the decision that a project needs approval, then, the efforts of the work that is done on the project naturally flow up the chain of command.
2. Look at your operational work as projects without a deadline
I offer that suggestion because I believe strongly that there are some disciplines or practices associated with good project management that can be used to improve the effectiveness of operational work. For example, is your operational team regularly making time to identify, assess, and manage risks? Are they communicating effectively with other people as needed? Are they managing procurement contracts according to a well-established procedure? How are changes in operations handled?
The piece that is critical here is the communication of expectations. When leaders are clear about expectations, goals, and objectives (or whatever terms you use), subordinates can organize their days around producing results. And preferably results that matter. It doesn’t matter whether the expectations relate to operations or project work. That will vary — depending on the work your company does. But the people who work for you need to know what is important to you and the company.
There are some things that are often parts of our job that may not generate short-term revenues or reduce costs. But executives need to understand and communicate expectations. Consider these questions, for examples:
- What kind of email responsiveness is important to your company?
- How important is clear documentation that is grammatically correct?
- How much time do you think employees should spend on creative “water-cooler” conversations?
- Is mentoring or team building important in your company?
Once you make the decision about what is important to the culture of your company, how will you communicate which endeavors you want to follow?
3. Focus on results, not time-worked to improve worker productivity
Once you have identified the work results that are important for your company, I recommend that you focus on achieving those results, not on how much time people put on the clock or were in the office. This is especially true with white-collar workers.
There is an increasing focus on measuring worker productivity, as a recent New York Times article discussed. But as the article pointed out, the software doesn’t measure offline reading, thinking, active listening, or discussions with others. And it doesn’t measure the quality of your thinking or the effectiveness of your conversations. There are so many tasks that employees need to be doing that simply cannot be measured.
And according to feedback in submissions to the New York Times, these tools are “inept at capturing offline activity, unreliable at assessing hard-to-quantify tasks and prone to undermining the work itself.”
What can be measured are the results produced. I recommend that you build a culture that encourages your workers to track their own time and use the insights to improve the way they prioritize and manage their days.
One of the benefits of tracking the way you spend your time is that you periodically finish the day and wonder where a few hours went. It might be time spent thinking about a problem, organizing team building activities, or a personal conversation with a colleague about a problem at home. It might also be time wasted due to a lack of understanding of expectations, or scope confusion.
Are you, as an executive going to trust the people who work for you to spend their time wisely? Or are you going to micro-manage them, or refuse to pay them for some of the time that they have spent on work for your company? Only you can decide.
4. Recognize that subordinates don’t want to give you bad news
Let’s face it. No one wants to tell their boss that they screwed up. But people make mistakes all the time. We live in a culture of self-sufficiency, particularly in America. Top performers often don’t like asking for help. And employees, trying to build their reputation as a team player, struggle with what work they should accept and what work they should reject.
Businesses struggle with how to balance the need to build independent employees who can analyze issues, solve problems, and make sound decisions against the growing need to build teams that are greater than the sum of their parts. After-all, the complexities today often demand more knowledge and skills than any one person has.
How can you set up a process so that people routinely acknowledge problems before they grow into insurmountable issues? Standing meetings offer a safe space for admitting a problem.
Have you ever begun a meeting by having everyone in the room talk about their biggest mistake of the week? We must build a culture where we celebrate mistakes. I’m not saying we celebrate losing big bucks. I’m saying that we need to make it safe for employees to give us bad news while the problems are small. If our culture has everyone thinking that they need to be a superman, we run the risk that executives won’t learn about the critical red flags until it is too late.
5. Use established practices in your company that don’t involve technology
We’ve all read the articles about increasing worker productivity by investing in better technologies and I don’t dismiss the benefits that technology offers. But too much screen time is bad for our brains and bodies. We’ve got to embrace business practices that don’t involve sitting at screens. And for many, that’s where much of our work is done.
We all hear complaints about the time wasted in meetings or driving to the office. Businesses need to figure out for themselves how much face time is important for the betterment of their companies. It won’t be the same for every business or for every team. Some businesses can run quite well virtually while others can’t run at all that way. Most businesses fall somewhere in the middle. Recognize that there are simply limits to the amount of time we can and should expect people to sit behind screens, and virtual work requires more screen time.
Establish processes in your company that will get people away from technology for part of the day. It may mean encouraging people to take their lunch break away from the office, or it may be regular meetings or play time breaks. I’ve written before about how to make meetings more effective.
When I hear or read about the debates on work from home and worker productivity measurement software, I think the dilemma is a matter of control. Executives are being held accountable for the performance of their companies. How much control should they have over their workers? What do you think?