5 ways to lead productivity in a reactive workplace

The impact that a productive culture can have on an organisation cannot be underestimated, and for this to happen, Dermot Crowley says productivity needs to be led from the top and by key influencers like HR

I was recently coaching a senior manager of an international technology company, specifically around his productivity. I was shocked at just how reactive his week was. He seemed to lurch from one fire that needed putting out to another. His days were full of urgent meetings, many only scheduled that day or at best the day before. His plans were non-existent, as they changed so often he felt like there was no point planning. When he did get to sit at his desk he was invariably interrupted. So he did not even try to get anything done except to crunch through a few urgent emails before the next crises arrived.

For him this was normal, and he assumed this was what it was like in every team in every organisation. Thankfully it is not. But I am sure many of us see this happening at some level in our own organisations. In my experience, most organisations are driven by urgency and reactivity. When is everything needed around here? Yesterday is the common answer! But industries are not reactive by nature. Neither are organisations. It is people and their workstyles that cause urgency most of the time. And it often starts at the top.

“When is everything needed around here? Yesterday is the common answer!”

Productivity needs to be led from the top, and by key influencers like HR. It is not enough to just throw training at individuals in this space. Expectations need to be set. Behaviours need to be modelled. And senior managers need to ensure they are amplifying the productivity of their people, not dragging it down. The impact that a productive culture can have on an organisation cannot be underestimated. And this does not just come from introducing the latest performance planning frameworks, or an activity-based workplace. It comes from how we personally organise and manage our work, and how every individual interacts with every other.

Upskill individuals and teams
The first step to creating a productive culture is to help everyone to get organised in the modern context that we now work in. Most people cobble together a way of organising themselves that kind of works, and kind of doesn’t. Their meetings get centralised into the calendar in Outlook or Lotus Notes, but priorities and tasks are still managed in ineffective piles, or at best, a paper to-do list.

Emails pile up in the inbox, with most just marking things unread to remember emails that they still need to action. Many are using overly complex and outdated filing systems that require too much maintenance. And although they know they should be taking time out to prioritise and plan, most don’t as they just have too much to do.

These are common issues that I come across in most teams, and yet they are easily fixed with some timely training or coaching. If this training saves each individual an hour a day, that translates into 23 days a year of more productive time. A month of reclaimed time!

Promote the use of technology
When it comes to productivity, technology is a part of the solution, and a part of the problem! Remember when computers were first introduced to your workplace, and the excitement you felt about their potential? Or when you got your first smartphone and dreamed about how much your productivity was going to improve?

“Most people cobble together a way of organising themselves that kind of works, and kind of doesn’t”

But for many of us, the technology has not met expectations. The frustrating thing is the potential is real. But expectation needs to be set about the consistent use of this technology. In your organisation, the use of the electronic calendar system for meetings has probably been mandated. That is because group productivity relies on all using it. But when it comes to how people manage their emails, or their task lists, there is no such mandate. This is left to the individual’s preferences. But this hampers group productivity as well. My experience is that if everyone in a team learns to harness the power of their technology, and applies a consistent organising system, the productivity of the group goes up to a greater extent than the sum of each individual’s productivity.

We are working in a modern workplace, with modern productivity issues. We have access to modern productivity tools, so why do we accept that people organise themselves using outdated methods? We need 21st century methods applied to 21st century tools to deal with 21st century productivity problems.

Dial down the urgency
Why is everything so urgent these days? Are we creating a sense of urgency, or senseless urgency? I believe that email has increased the urgency in many organisations. What started out as an asynchronous tool has become a synchronous tool. We send emails and expect an instant response. Many people use their inbox as their default screen when at their desk, and we just churn through all the ‘urgent’ messages, all day long.

The issue of urgency is often blamed on the industry, or the organisation. People say to me that this is just how it is in the retail industry, or the finance industry, or (insert industry). But urgency is not an industry issue, or an organisation issue. It is an individual issue. Urgency and reactivity are caused by people and their workstyles 99 per cent of the time.

“Urgency is not an industry issue, or an organisation issue. It is an individual issue”

There are four types of urgency. Real urgency – things that are truly urgent, and false urgency. Many people have worked out that the best way to get stuff done is to become the squeaky wheel that gets oiled. We need to be able to differentiate and negotiate if we feel that something is not really urgent. At the same time there is reasonable urgency – things that are urgent and could not have been planned for, and unreasonable urgency. These are things that either other people left until the last minute, or you left until the last minute. This can be avoided, and should not be tolerated.

Unfortunately, I often see the false and unreasonable urgency cascading from the leadership team down. How can leaders expect their teams to be productive if they are a part of the problem? And no amount of time management training resolves the issue of working in an always urgent workplace. We need to dial down the urgency, just a bit, if we want to create a truly productive culture.

Introduce protocols and expectations
Working together is a complex thing. That is why we need to pull the right levers to ensure the most productive outcome when we interact or collaborate. The three key levers we can influence to increase productive collaboration are how we communicate (email), how we meet (meetings) and how we interact (collaboration). By creating protocols in these three areas, and by setting an expectation with our colleagues about their behaviours, we can significantly reduce the friction caused by poor collaboration, and amplify the productivity of the whole team.

There are three essential ingredients needed for productive collaboration to take place. We firstly need to get alignment so that everyone understands what we are trying to achieve. This helps us to prioritise and creates an insight into the needs and priorities of our colleagues. We also need agreement about how we are going to work together – a shared understanding of accepted collaboration behaviours. Lastly we need to have an awareness of our own behaviours and how they impact on the productivity of others.

If we can get these three ingredients right, we can then collaborate with respect, judgement and understanding. Our own productivity will increase as we amplify the productivity of others.

Lead by example
Finally, as leaders in the organisation, we need to model what productive behaviour looks like. How can we expect our teams to work proactively if we always delegate work to them at the last minute? How can we expect meetings to be an effective use of time when we turn up late because we have scheduled too many back-to-back? How can we expect timely responses to email requests when we are not in control of our inbox?

A productive culture starts with the leadership team, and with the key influencers in the organisation such as HR. It requires work, persistence and dedication, but the results are worth it. Everyone feels more engaged, more energised and less stressed. At a recent team offsite, I saw the CEO present a closing talk after I ran a productivity session for the management team. He asked who was working to their capacity. Everyone put their hand up. He then asked who was working to their potential. Only a few put their hands up to that. That CEO’s mission this year is to enable his team to work to their potential. And that is why he has put productivity on the agenda as a leadership issue, and he has started with his own behaviours and practices.

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