4 steps to boosting productivity in a busy workplace

Productivity depends not only on our personal habits and systems, but on how other people work with us. And their productivity is dependent on how we work with them

Productive cultures come from a set of behaviours exhibited by every employee, but the leadership team and HR need to lead by example in enhancing – and not disrupting – productivity, writes Dermot Crowley

While much of my time is spent helping executives and workers work more productively as individuals, we cannot ignore the fact that productivity is a team issue. Our productivity depends not only on our personal habits and systems, but on how other people work with us. And their productivity is dependent on how we work with them. Unfortunately, in today’s email and meeting driven workplaces, we drag each other’s productivity down constantly. Instead of enhancing the productivity of those around it, we tend to disrupt, and to be disrupted.

Improving productivity

Disrupters to enhancers
Some people cannot help but disrupt productivity. They are disorganised and chaotic, and cause friction for everyone. Their lack of structure and order can disrupt the productivity of the whole team. Reactors are urgency driven, and make everything a last-minute crisis. This ‘squeaky-wheel’ approach makes it hard for others to get their planned work done, and causes unnecessary stress and drama.

The organisers are up the productivity ladder a bit, but can be too focused on ticking boxes and churning out replies to emails. Their way of working can be too focused on efficiency, and not enough on effectiveness! Performers are productive and get stuff done, and without dragging down the productivity of others.

“HR should be working with the leadership team and the organisation to ensure that an enhancing culture is in place”

But the enhancers are the ones that actually boost the productivity of all around them. Everything they do is designed and planned to enhance their own productivity, and the productivity of everyone they interact with. Their meetings are focused, short and only involve those required. Their emails are on point and quick to understand. Their delegations are clear, thought through and open for negotiation. And their projects are a pleasure to work on, because they make everyone involved look good. They facilitate flow, the opposite of the friction that pervades most organisations when it comes to getting things done.

Ideally, HR should be working with the leadership team and the organisation to ensure that an enhancing culture is in place. Ensuring that everyone has some basic personal productivity skills, and an agreed set of productivity protocols set up across the team will help with this. But what can we do to at least make sure we are personally more the enhancer than the disrupter. Here are some ideas:

Fewer, faster, focused meetings
One of the biggest causes of productivity friction are poorly planned and organised meetings. There are so many productivity issues here. So much of our day is spent in meetings. Too many meetings. Meetings that do not achieve any clear outcomes. The wrong people in meetings. The people in the meetings distracted by emails or worse, a game on their smartphone. No clear objectives or agenda. People planning the meeting in the meeting. Attendees turning up late and thinking ‘It was only 5 minutes!’ The problem is, that is 5 minutes’ x 10 people.

A challenge many executives and professionals face is that they fill their day up with too many meetings, and leave no space to get their other priorities done. This means we spend between 9am and 5pm in meetings, and 5pm and 9pm doing tasks. We need fewer meetings if we are going to get balance into our schedule.

“We are so busy because we have so many meetings, that we don’t have time to plan effectively for our meetings”

Then there is the question of why every meeting needs to take an hour? Parkinson’s law suggests that the work will always expand to fill the time available. So a one-hour meeting will take an hour. But a 45-minute meeting will still achieve the same outcomes in less time in most situations.

Finally, when meeting attendees, or worse the meeting convener, turn up unprepared for the meeting, everyone’s time is being wasted. We are so busy because we have so many meetings, that we don’t have time to plan effectively for our meetings. If a meeting is worthy of several people’s precious time, everyone involved should take the time to plan for it. That means that a clear objective for the meeting should be set, and an agenda communicated before the meeting. There should be an expectation that everyone comes prepared and with a clear idea about what needs to be achieved.

An email style that works for us
How you manage your Inbox says a lot about how you value your time, and other peoples time. If you have a messy Inbox, you may spend your time in a messy way. And you may disrupt other people’s productivity.

You probably feel that you manage your Inbox in a way that works for ME. But that can be a challenge for others. I worked with a senior executive recently whose Inbox style was to just leave emails in his Inbox, and ignore most of them. He would manage his critical relationships, but anyone not on his VIP list was at risk of being buried in his pile. If someone emailed him three times, he would begin to see it as a priority and respond. But that meant that he was always the bottleneck, forcing others to work reactively because of his delayed response. This style worked for him, but caused friction for everyone else.

“Productive people work in a way that works for US”

The other extreme is to manage your inbox in a way that works for you. Again, a recent coaching session uncovered a behaviour that was extremely unproductive. This executive felt that his reputation was on the line if he was not responsive. So every email had to be dealt with straight away, causing a huge amount of distraction and unnecessary urgency. Meetings were scheduled and rescheduled at the last minute all of the time, which played havoc with his schedule and priorities. But the real impact was on his team. They felt that they spent their days just reacting to his demands, or picking up the pieces after him as he caused chaos wherever he went.

Productive people work in a way that works for US. In this scenario, people organise their activities, information and time with their own productivity front and centre, but with others productivity clearly taken into consideration. This way of working should be taught, cultivated and prized in busy organisations.

Tell them to SSSH: a 4 step approach
Finally, there is the issue of urgency. Most organisations I work in are extremely reactive and driven by urgency. This increases everyone’s stress levels, reduces the quality of thinking and definitely disrupts everyone’s productivity. So how can we dial down the urgency?

One way is to tell people to SSSH! Here is the scenario. You receive an email from a key client asking for some information. Your first reaction is to drop what you are doing and get it done ASAP. But that is not what the client needs. They just want to know you have it in hand, and that you will do it in a timely way. So tell them to SSSH.

“The leadership team, as well as HR need to lead by example. Enhance, don’t disrupt. And expect nothing less from your colleagues”

SSSH is a simple strategy for managing expectations. Firstly, Send a timely response so that they know you have it in hand. In that response, Set an expectation about when you could do the work. Then Schedule a task or time in your calendar to do it. Finally, Hold yourself responsible for delivering on time, or renegotiating the deadline if something else comes up.

Such a simple strategy, but so powerful. They feel comfortable because they know you have it covered, but you also buy yourself time. You have dialled down the urgency. If we all did this to each other, we would be enhancing productivity, not disrupting it.

Productive cultures come from a set of behaviours exhibited by every employee. But it must be led from the top. The leadership team, as well as HR need to lead by example. Enhance, don’t disrupt. And expect nothing less from your colleagues.

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