While the past year may have changed some of the ways we define our own productivity, from a business perspective productivity is still generally something that needs to be measured and maximized. But rushing to review employee activity, priorities and progress often overlooks a simple fact: employee productivity starts at a systems level. An individual can be entirely motivated, engaged and ready to work, but if they aren’t enabled by their company’s structures, workflows and processes, true productivity will always remain elusive. Here’s how companies unintentionally limit their employees’ productivity – and what they can do to solve it.
Individual productivity vs systemic productivity
As every company’s biggest asset, managers are continually pouring over ways to help their people work more effectively. From time management training and productivity tools to work management hacks, the quest to help employees “work smarter” remains a top priority. While well intentioned, this approach has one major shortfall – it completely ignores the fact that most people don’t work in isolated independence; they work as part of large organizations with complex systems, policies and processes. The focus on individual productivity within that system, therefore, counts for very little if the system itself introduces confusion, inefficiencies and disruption into an employee’s workflow.
For example, an employee can carve out a two-hour block each day to work deeply on a high-value complex project, but that productive strategy is negated if their boss interrupts them to ask for help with an “urgent” task, or if team culture encourages employees to stay active on email and messenger platforms. According to a survey of financial services employees, more than a quarter of workers (28%) blamed inefficient systems and processes for the fact they rarely reached maximum productivity – and in his book Out of the Crisis, renowned statistician and management consultant W. Edwards Deming stated that 94% of most possibilities for improvement relate to the system, not the individual.
How to improve employee productivity at a systems level
To enable employee productivity, businesses need to regularly revisit and refine their existing processes, culture and policy. Above all, effort should be prioritized around increasing employee authority, improving communication processes and facilitating team-wide visibility.
Increase employee autonomy and authority
One of the most effective ways productivity can be improved at a systems level is by giving employees more autonomy and authority, rather than erring towards more top-down control. According to productivity expert Robby Slaughter, the very best way to encourage productivity is to “encourage individuals to take ownership over how they manage their own time and resources. Granting workers freedom over when, how, and where they work creates proof of their work ethic in a way that trying to control them cannot.”
While not always intentional, some form of micromanaging can easily seem into management practice. Training and cultural onboarding is crucial for clamping down on this – teaching managers to step back and dial things down. Getting managers to back off might sound counterintuitive to productivity, but trusting employees to manage their day-to-day operations, and only stepping in when needed, is a great way to foster employee motivation – and by extension productivity.
Increasing employee autonomy and authority can also massively reduce workflows. If an employee is responsible and accountable for a task, they should also have the authority to make decisions relating to that task without waiting for approval or sign-off. When low-risk decisions necessitate a never-ending string of emails, meetings or presentations, you’re not only adding more jobs to people’s to-do list; you’re making employees to feel powerless and limiting their productivity.
Improve communication processes
Another powerful way productivity can be improved at a systems level is by establishing clear communication protocols. Without effective, two-way communication, you can’t expect expectations or responsibilities to be clear to your team. One big problem many companies face today is that there are so many communication channels and platforms in use, people aren’t sure which technology to use and when. Faced with the fear that something important will slip through the cracks, teams can waste hours checking emails, instant messenger and in-app comments to ensure they haven’t missed anything. As a protective workaround, they may also duplicate effort by posting the same information in multiple places.
Taking the time to create a solid remote communication structure can save employees hours of time each day. Make sure everyone knows which platform they should use if there’s an critical issue, and where they can make notes and comments about less important issues. Not only does it remove the stress of worrying you’ve missed something, but it also allows employees to use the time they would have spent checking and replying to messages on the work that’s actually important to them. It doesn’t matter which communication protocol you decide to use – only that the protocol exists.
Increase work visibility
The third change you can make to boost productivity at a system level is to increase work visibility. With so many employees working remotely, it’s more important than ever to keep work visible. When teams work in isolation – potentially spread across different countries and time zones – it’s easy to lose sight of team capacity and availability. But constantly having to request (and give) status updates or sync meetings can quickly become a drain.
Thankfully, the market for virtual work tools is abundant. Forrester is already predicting a huge uptick here across industries, calling 2021 “the year that every company doubles down on technology-fueled experiences, operations, products, and ecosystems.” Where heavy-weight, traditional ERP systems fail, a dynamic new breed of remote tech is waiting in the wings. Workflow management solutions like Pipefy, Kissflow and Asana can help managers stay on top of team priorities and work in progress, while automatic tracking solutions like Timely keep all employee work hours, overtime, capacity and activity visible with minimal effort.
Ultimately, companies don’t need to spend huge amounts of money to boost productivity at a systems level. In general, it’s the things that cost the least that make the biggest difference – like establishing clear communication protocols, increasing employee autonomy, and giving people the time and space to thrive in their work.