How to Improve Employee Productivity
Anyone that has ever led or managed people has asked themselves how they can improve the productivity of all or some of their team members. Over years of building and leading teams ranging in size, location, personality, demographic, and skill level, I have learned a great deal on the topic of improving staff productivity. Some of these lessons came from books and mentors, and others came through successes or failures. I’ve implemented a lot, and had many experiments blow up in my face. Fortunately, I’ve also experienced some big wins in the area of team productivity, in some cases leading teams to outperform the competition by a large margin.
Let’s start with an important point of clarification. Productivity is not simply doing more work efficiently. Productivity is doing the right work in a more effective manner that can often lead to a slight or sharp increase in doing more of the right work effectively. This definition forces us to consider a few important questions:
What are the ‘right things’ that my team members should be doing?
What are the ‘wrong things’ that my team members should not be doing?
What does ‘working effectively’ look like?
Do away with the cliches
We also need to throw out a number of cliche sayings and misinformation circling around the topic of productivity.
Cliche saying: “All that you need to improve productivity is a goal and a deadline.''
Reality: people are not machines, input a goal and deadline, and results pop out. On top of that, the marketplace is dynamic and things rarely go according to plan.
Cliche saying: “Motivating people requires either enforcement or incentive.”
Reality: often referred to as ‘amoeba motivation’, in which a biologist causes a single-cell organism to move by either poking it with a needle (enforcement), or enticing it with a molecule of sugar (incentive), this basic methodology arguably may have worked in pre-19th century, but in the modern world does not draw out a person’s best work.
Cliche saying: “A leader/manager’s role is to motivate their team.”
Reality: any neuroscientist, therapist, or psychologist will affirm that real behavioural change requires a person to arrive at individual reasons to initiate and sustain a behaviour long-term. Don’t mistake tactics for motivating people for a couple hours with sustainable strategies that facilitate enduring productivity.
Cliche saying: “When performance is off, it is due to skill or commitment”. In other words, if a team member underperforms or makes a mistake it is because they either didn’t know how to do it (skill) or chose not to do it (commitment).
Reality: I tend to say this often. The truth is that in today’s fast-moving marketplace, it is just as likely that large or small external factors (trends, consumer demand, political dynamics) change the rules of the game in an instant to which we must adapt.
The 9 components of productivity you can impact, and 3 you can't
When you are having trouble getting improved performance out of a team member, the temptation is to throw up your hands and let HR know it’s time to fire the person. I want to challenge you to hit pause, and realize that there are nine components of productivity that you as a Manager or Leader you can influence, and that there are three that you cannot. Below I have provided a very brief definition of each component, and a turn-key tactic you can implement right away to throttle up your team’s output.
The nine components of productivity you can impact:
Impacting employee productivity begins in the recruiting and selection process. More often than not, a candidate’s principal concern in an interview process is ‘getting the job’. As a manager, your first priority when recruiting is to determine if there’s mutual fit: the characteristics of the position must fit the characteristics of the candidate. You must have a clear understanding of what the role entails, the personality type that will thrive in the role, the behavioural predispositions that would help or hinder someone in the role, and be clear on what are the expectations of the role. A strong interviewer learns how to clearly articulate these to a candidate while still selling the candidate on the role (as the best candidates normally require some selling).
Turn-Key Tactic: define the characteristics of the role you’re hiring for, and compare them to the candidate’s goals, personality, career ambitions, and lifestyle.
Clarity & Expectations
As defined above, productive work is ‘activity that is first and foremost applied to the right work’. Few things are more frustrating for worker and manager than when things are done incorrectly, or unnecessary work was completed because the worker was unclear on what their work priorities were to be and what the expectations of their work product were to be. As managers and leaders it is difficult enough at times to plan out your own week’s work, but your responsibility is to not only clearly define your work priorities, but to provide a clear outline of what each team member’s work priorities are what your expectations are for the quality of their work, how long it should take them to complete tasks, and to be crystal clear on what ‘complete’ looks like.
Turn-Key Tactic: block off a weekly time on the last working day of the week to assess what got done, and what didn’t get done. Determine what the company’s goals need to be next week, define your goals and work tasks, and define what each team member’s goals and key tasks need to be in light of this week’s performance. Hold a crisp, recurring team standing meeting to review this week’s goals vs actual results. Your people will experience a much more satisfying weekend when they are clear on what their priorities are for the following week and what the expectations are associated with those priorities are, so ensure everyone leaves the meeting crystal clear.
Skills & Competencies
You cannot expect someone to increase their productivity if they have not developed the skills required for all of the components of the tasks involved in their role. Use the following tactic to “fill in the gaps” and improve your team’s productivity.
Turn-Key Tactics: Create a spreadsheet on which the horizontal column titles are all of the skills and competencies needed for the role, and the vertical column on the left, turn each row into the name of one of your staff. Conduct an audit for each staff member on whether you have observed them demonstrating that skill or competency to an acceptable level.
Structure & Ritual
In order for any system of moving parts to achieve optimal performance, structure and ritual are required. I’ve found the most effective management style for modern organizations is a “Tight/Loose” methodology, where leadership is “tight” on the goals, priorities, expectations, deadlines and roles, but is “loose” on how they achieve those priorities.
Turn-Key Tactic: establish clear structure including goals, measurable results, reporting structure, and modes of accountability. Create rituals in your team, such as daily standing huddles by department, a results tracker, weekly 1:1 meetings between each manager and their report, and a brief end-of-week meeting focused on the key metrics you are trying to move forward.
Next only to selecting the right people, nothing has more impact on your team’s productivity than the culture you allow to grow within your team. I like to define team culture simply as “The way we do things around here”. If the ‘way’ your organization does things is ‘in an extremely productive manner’, then that is part of your culture. To raise performance, you must cultivate a culture that values high performance. To improve personal accountability to goals, you must cultivate a culture that holds achieving personal commitments in high regard. Culture is a broad topic, but when it comes to leveraging culture to improve productivity, there are several turn-key tactics you can implement right away.
Turn-Key Tactics: Humans are tribal. Identify your culture champions: members of your team that have the respect of their fellow colleagues, and who reflect many of the qualities you want to instill. Take them aside, and provide a clear vision of the type of culture you want to grow on the team and invite them to be part of leading the transformation. Allow them to contribute to the vision, and schedule weekly short meetings to determine how to best cultivate and grow a culture that places high value on, among other things, high productivity.
You can improve the productivity of your team by improving the work environment. Cluttered desks and work spaces, noisy speakers, people eating at their desks, poor lighting and returning to a dirty office on Monday morning are all examples of a work environment that does not promote high productivity. Save the inspiring speech, and instead invest a day ‘optimizing the work environment for increased productivity’.
Turn-Key Tactic: Set aside a generous period of time and pause all work. Have every member of your team brainstorm one or two ideas to improve the workplace environment and increase overall productivity. Be comfortable adding and vetoing as you see fit. Once this activity is complete, shift gears from brainstorming to actually implement the changes.
Every human is more productive when they are well-rested, well-fed, active, are looking after their mental health, and feel a sense of fulfillment in activities outside of work. As a manager and leader, there is an appropriate amount of inquiry that you can have into your team member’s personal lives.This is not the time to be an expert or a hobby-psychologist, but make sure that your team hears that you care about them, and that you encourage them to take care of themselves.
Turn-Key Tactic: in a weekly 1:1 meeting with each of your reports, share with them your desire to support them to be healthy and fulfilled outside of work. Invite them to share a meaningful personal weekly goal in addition to their weekly work goals. Ensure that you set the expectation that they are in no way accountable to you for their personal goals, but that you want to succeed inside and outside work, which requires them to be healthy. Allow them to share as they’re comfortable about habits or disciplines they are developing. At all costs, avoid bringing judgement, advice or accountability into these personal discussions - just listen and encourage.
There are many productivity tools on the market today that claim to improve the effectiveness of your team. As a manager your job is to select the right tools that will ensure three key things: your team knows what they need to do, when they need to do it by, and have instant access to how they should properly do things. In all my years, I have found that tool to support the how is the trickiest to find, which is why we built KnowHow, a platform for managers to share step-by-step processes with their teams.
Turn-Key Tactic: Take time to find tools that appeal to your culture champion(s) that will make it easy to equip your team with the what, the when and the how’. Check out KnowHow for free.
Mindset & Motivation
As a manager you have many responsibilities, but ‘motivating your team’ is not one. Your role is to orchestrate the right conditions to ensure that mature, adult employees clearly understand where the company needs to go, how it needs to get there, and what their role and responsibilities need to be. When things are clear, the right people are in the right roles, compensation is fair, and their leaders are nurturing a productive work environment, employees will respond with a motivated, committed, and loyal mindset. Provide your team members the respect of treating them like adults, forget about the inspiring speeches, and focus on the hard work of creating a work environment in which your people can thrive.
Turn-Key Tactic: implement the aforementioned turn-key tactics to create a work environment within which your team members can independently apply their personal motivation and focused mindset towards work they determine to be meaningful, towards goals they are committed to.
3 things that drag down productivity that you can’t impact.
In my experience managing teams, there are three things that, if present in a team member, are not in your control. In this case, investing time and energy in trying to fix these is outside your job description as a manager and is not fair to your other reports.
Poor Work Ethic
“You can’t push a wet noodle”. A person that has not personally invested in developing a strong work ethic is not going to suddenly undo years of behavioural preferences and start working hard after a firm warning from their manager. You are not their parent, and it is not your job to teach them how to work hard. If they are a wet noodle, move them out fast.
If a member of your team does not align with what your organization values, both your organization and the individual in question are better off going their separate ways. A person lacking the values your organization holds dear will not be able to do work the ‘right way’, and thus they will never truly be productive in your workplace.
This might seem harsh, but I have learned that if the requirements of someone’s role is greater than their intelligence, they know it, their colleagues know it, and your customers know it too. Do the right thing, and either move them into a more suitable role, or move them out of your organization. Asking someone to become more productive within work they are not capable of doing is demeaning and not kind. Do the kind thing, and move them out of the role.
If you see any of these three things present in a role on your team, with rare exceptions, the right call is to transition the person out, in a respectful and rapid manner. They are dragging down your team’s productivity (and yours). Increasing employee productivity is hard work, and your time is not well spent with this person.
Remember, improving team productivity is difficult because humans are complex, and we live and work in a rapidly changing world. If you are ready to start this challenging and important work, I hope that the ‘turn-key tactics’ outlined above provide you with some helpful guidance.