The Right Way to Support Employee Productivity

The Right Way to Support Employee Productivity 1080 540 Jason Lauritsen

Given where we find ourselves at the end of 2020, it’s not surprising that one of the biggest concerns being discussed by managers and leaders everywhere is employee productivity.

Whether your work requires you to be face-to-face with customers or patients or it confines you to a home office, there are more stressors and distractions to deal with at work today than ever before.

And as we settle into the cold winter months with pandemic trend lines pointed in the wrong directions, there’s rightful concern about employee wellbeing. An already tenuous situation is about to get worse.

With all of this happening around our people, it’s not out of line for you to be concerned about how to maintain performance levels.

So we ask, “How do we maintain employee productivity?”

This question worries me. Not so much because of the intent behind the question, but rather the use of the word, “productivity.”

Like many of the words we use in the context of work, this one is a little unclear and comes with a lot of baggage.

Productivity is one of those words that is a holdover from management’s origins in the industrial revolution. During those times, the primary job of management was to extract every bit of useful work effort out of each employee’s time on the clock.

The goal of productivity was to maximize the value that could be extracted from an employee. To maximize the return on investment in the employee’s salary.

While this made sense and was incredibly effective during a time where most work was done in factories on lines, some still use the word today to mean the same thing: to get as much work out of the employee as possible.

But, work has changed. A lot. And this way of thinking about productivity is part of what’s contributing to our current crises and leading so many people down a path to burnout.

Not THAT Kind of Productivity

There is an alternative. It reveals itself most clearly when we think about what a productive day looks like in our own lives.

Take a minute to think about the most productive day you’ve had in the past month. What happened on that day that made you label it as productive? How do you remember feeling that day?

For me, it was a day when I had a clear picture of what needed to be accomplished and completed everything in a way that felt good. At the end of the day, I felt accomplished and gave myself permission to unplug as a reward.

Your own experience may have been a day without meetings or distractions. It might have been a day when you made progress on a meaningful project you’d been putting off.

When we think about our own productivity, we think in terms of how well we are able to use our time to get done what really matters. That’s very different from the industrial definition.

No one gets to the end of the day and thinks, “Wow, I was really productive today because I literally can’t give any more effort to the company.”

As we think about how to help our people to be more productive, we need to be very clear about what we are talking about. Here’s a simple way to break it down:

In today’s world of work, productivity shouldn’t be about maximizing the value that can be extracted from employees—it’s about helping the employee most effectively and efficiently accomplish their performance objectives.

What does productivity require?

To understand productivity, we need only to examine our own experience of when we feel productive. There are some common ingredients required.

  1. Clarity about what matters and what needs to get done. Productivity isn’t about getting more work done. It’s about getting the right work done. This requires crystal clear goals and objectives. It also requires that the employee understands what is most important and why so they can prioritize completing tasks effectively. Defining expectations is doubly critical for employees working from home because they need to know with confidence how much is enough so they can maintain some balance. Otherwise, fear fueled by the uncertainty of our current world will drive them to work until they crash.
  2. Visibility to progress and impact. Part of what makes work feel unproductive is feeling like what you are doing isn’t moving things forward or making a difference. If employees are clear on what’s expected and what matters, the next thing they need is a way to know that they are making progress. This could be as simple as submitting a finished project, but in other cases it requires feedback and recognition from a manager or their peers.
  3. The resources and support needed. Nothing kills productivity faster than trying to get work done and finding that you lack what you need to do it. To head this off requires a conversation when setting expectations to anticipate and plan for resource needs. It also requires ongoing check-ins from managers to inquire about needs to ensure they’re being met.
  4. Remove obstacles. We are often our own worst enemy when it comes to supporting employee productivity. The fastest way to identify obstacles is to simply ask your people what’s the biggest challenge they face in feeling more productive each day. The most common thing you are likely to hear is meetings. Most meetings are kryptonite to productivity. I’ll be writing more about this soon, but for now, resist the urge to add meetings to your team’s schedule. Be very clear about the purpose and intention of any meetings you schedule and only include those who will get real value from being there.

Productivity and Employee Engagement

When we get clear about what we are trying to accomplish with productivity, it becomes clear that this conversation is really about employee engagement—at least in the way I define it, which is the degree to which employees are willing and able to perform to their potential.

The bottom line is that if you are doing a good job of managing and engaging your team, productivity will happen. There’s nothing new or magical we need to learn to support productivity, we just need to focus on doing the fundamentals (like those I just outlined) that we should have been doing all along.

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