Importance of Productivity during Down Times

Importance of Productivity during Down TimesIn the summer of 1900…

• The average life expectancy in the United States was 47.
• A three-minute call from Denver to New York City cost $11, which was an incredible sum because the average American made .22 cents an hour, or about $400 per year.
• Most women only washed their hair once a month and used borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
• Only 6% of all Americans had graduated from high school.
• Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at corner drugstores.
• There were about 230 reported murders in the US annually.

Amazing what a century will change. Amazing what a few months will change. Growth ends, recession sets in, the stock market stops booming, and companies go bust. The recession is impacting our clients in various ways: we’re hearing of layoffs, hiring freezes, reduced budgets, not rehiring for positions as people leave, go on maternity, etc.

Tough economic times are packing a one-two punch in the workplace.

First, everyone is forced to do more with less (POW!).

Second, you have to do it all while dealing with the nagging anxieties that come with an uncertain economy—threats of downsizing, bankruptcies, cost containment, you name it (POW, again!).

So how do we cope—as leaders and as productive employees?

To succeed and keep their doors open, companies must make more money but spend less money and create greater results with fewer resources. You could attempt to cut salaries, benefits, staff, costs, or the quality of your products—all poor options. A better choice? Increase employee productivity. If you have 10 people, and you can get them to improve their productivity by 10%, you just effectively added another staff person without increasing salary expense—a much more attractive response. To do this, your employees need your help.

First of all, get a grip on your personal negative feelings that result from your lack of control. You DO have control over your friends, your love relationships, and your career. You decide for yourself what’s right and what’s wrong, whether you should stay in this weekend or go out, whether to vote Democrat or Republican. You decide who to see, what to wear, what to eat.

However, you have VERY LITTLE control over the government, economic policy, the rise and fall of the stock market, Mother Nature, international events, and even your company direction. Changes can often disrupt your life and force you to change your plans. Often there is little you can do and yet you are overwhelmingly affected by it. Accepting what is means realizing you can’t control certain things and to stop trying. You can sit around and wonder, “Oh, my gosh, how is this going to affect me? What if I’m next to go? How will I pay the bills? I’m going to be a bag lady!” You stew and worry and literally make yourself sick.

These things will happen. They just will. You will get no warning, and nobody will prepare you. And that’s frustrating. Because people will tell you to “reach for the stars—you can achieve whatever you want!” But they don’t mention you might get hit by a comet in the process.

It’s time to accept the things that you cannot change and focus on the things you can. What can you do?

Give yourself a break. Try to stay positive, despite the doom and gloom. Overdosing on pessimistic, overly dramatic news coverage is just going to weigh you down with bad thoughts—not good for those looking to clear their heads and get things done! It’s important to be informed about what is happening in the world, but you definitely don’t want to overdo it.

For months now, we’ve been bombarded with bad economic news every time we turn on the television or pick up a newspaper. No wonder everybody seems to be in a rut. Follow the daily news as much as you need to so that you feel in the loop and understand the issues that affect your industry. Other than that, it might be time to shut off the TV and catch up on some fun reading or spend some more time with family.

Know your job. Seems like this one should be a no-brainer, but you’d be amazed at how often our responsibilities can change and evolve without our even knowing it. Small incremental changes in how employees or departments do business can add up over time, leaving groups of people that work hard, but aren’t contributing to business objectives as effectively as they once did.

For example, in an effort to provide an exceptional level of service, you might find yourself doing work that is below your pay grade. Maybe you end up doing a large portion of the administrative work associated with a project that needs your input. Consider the value of your time!

Make sure that the things that occupy your time are worthy of your talent and expertise and hold your staff to the same standard. With any project, you should be able to look at the time spent, multiply by the pay rate of the ones doing the work, and still feel that your resources were well spent.

If you’ve got a $40,000/year employee stuffing a bunch of envelopes (even just that one time) or a six-figure manager assembling an important presentation page-by-page, then that work becomes awfully expensive!

These examples might seem outrageous to you, but believe me, it happens all the time. Never make the mistake of treating your time like it’s free. Time and other resources are limited, and we need to treat them that way.

As your company and your department are undoubtedly being asked to do more with less, now is the time to step back and take stock of the type of work you’re doing. Many times roles and responsibilities change, but job descriptions do not. As a result, we end up drifting away from core priorities and towards dong work that, while challenging, doesn’t really meet the organization’s immediate needs.

Now might be a good time to step back and ask that all important question: “Why am I (or we) doing this?” If you can’t answer that, or the answer doesn’t make sense, it’s time to purposefully make a change.

Break habits, build systems. Every office that has been around for any length of time has certain unwritten policies and procedures that exist simply because “we’ve always done it that way.” Now is a great opportunity to analyze your existing business practices and find opportunities to break the bad habits that may be bogging your operation down. Take you entire department for example. Do you and your people have a clear idea of your area’s specific responsibilities? Do you have the confidence and determination to say “no” when someone is asking you to do work that is outside your scope of responsibility?

Perhaps over the years your group took on the responsibility of coordinating quarterly meetings with senior managers. It might have made sense for you to be doing the legwork then, but now that the work has become routine, is it really the best use of your talent and resources?

That’s just one specific example, but there are many more out there. Usually, these are the kinds of tasks and responsibilities that make employees want to ask the all-important “Why am I doing this?” question. Rather than spend another day mindlessly plowing though projects that may or may not be a good use of your time, force yourself to take a hard look at what you are doing and why you are doing it.

If you had to pick three tasks or responsibilities that should be the top priorities for your department, what would they be? Once you know, evaluate how much time and energy is dedicated to those things. You might be surprised at how much time we can spend doing things that aren’t even close to the top of that priorities list.

It isn’t always easy to say “no,” but fortunately, that’s where your systems can come in. As you work to create smooth, efficient systems to do work within your department, you can give yourself some ammunition to fend off others in the company that might be inclined to slide work onto your plate where it doesn’t belong. If you don’t have firm policies and procedures in place to identify who should be doing what, it is much more difficult to make the case for “no.”

Analyze your relationships with other departments. Have trouble turning down work coming from other areas of the company? Now is a perfect time to start fresh and rebuild your department’s boundaries. In a frank and honest way, simply explain to others that in light of the current economic situation, your group has taken a critical look at its daily operations and needs to decline certain types of requests in order to build efficiency.

Perhaps you need to apply a little systems thinking and rethink the flow of information. Is there a procedure in place for other business units to request your assistance or input? If there’s not, you’re probably being hit from all angles with requests that may or may not be the best use of your time. Diagram how work moves through your department. Where does it come in from and go out to other departments? Interview your internal customers and find out how you can provide value through reduced services. Can you provide a report monthly instead of quarterly? Can you cancel the weekly project meeting and get everyone to email updates instead? Question travel requests if you feel a conference call will do. One of the best ways to take stock of the situation is to survey your group, ask them what gets in the way of productivity, and to genuinely ask how they would redesign things if they could.

Find the bottom line. Right now, businesses everywhere are taking stock of their must-haves versus their nice-to-haves. From an organizational perspective, which are you?

Economic necessity can force budget cuts and cost containment that might otherwise be unnecessary. One way to prepare yourself for this reality is to make sure you have a good understanding of how you and your people contribute to the company’s bottom line.

Sometimes, it’s easy. If you work in sales, for example, the correlation between what you do every day and the company’s financial success might be very straightforward—my group sells our most profitable product, which makes the company money.

Sometimes that correlation is not so obvious. If you operate in a support role, like Human Resources, you may want to start looking at your various responsibilities and deciding which among them have the greatest influence on the company’s bottom line—either by somehow driving revenue or by controlling expenses. Perhaps you help contribute to developing talent within the company, which clearly has an impact on the overall success of the organization. Employee development always seems to be one of the first things to go during down economic times, but this is not the time to reduce training if you’d like to get more work from fewer people. Or maybe you’re managing clerical or administrative functions that would be expensive to secure elsewhere.
If you can’t draw a line from what you do each day to the financial well-being of the company, then it might be time to do some hard thinking. Your other contributions might be valuable, but in difficult economic times, corporate leadership often becomes must more focused on dollars and cents, for better or for worse.

Where am I going with this? If it isn’t obvious how your contributions benefit the company, be prepared to explain how they do. If you CAN’T explain why certain aspects of what you do are valuable, then it’s time to stop doing them.

At the end of the day, productivity is about more than getting things done. It’s about getting the RIGHT things done and getting them done efficiently.