How to Boost Your Team’s Productivity

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By: Rebecca Knight

We All have too much to do and too little time to do it. As a boss, you may have already learned how to plan, prioritize, and streamline your work. But how can you help your team members do the same? Should you dictate the processes and tools they use? How do you keep people from taking on too much and burning out or continuously spinning their wheels?

What the Experts Say
In today’s complex and collaborative workplace, the real challenge is to manage not just your personal workload but the collective one, says Jordan Cohen, a productivity expert and the Senior Director of Organizational Effectiveness, Learning & Development at Weight Watchers. “Helping your team manage its time well is a critical factor for its success.” Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of How to Invest Your Time like Money and the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training, agrees. As a manager, your role is to both “set the strategic vision” and serve as “the buffer for unreasonable expectations” from the rest of the organization. Here are some tips to ensure that your team works productively.

• Set the example
The first step is to get your own house in order (if it’s not already) and exhibit good time management practices yourself, says Saunders. Be smart about how you allocate the hours of your own workday—the meetings you attend, the emails you respond to, and the projects you sign on for—so your team can follow your lead. “If you’re stretched and overloaded, you can’t think strategically about your own time let alone anyone else’s,” she says. Adds Cohen: “Model the behavior” and show them that you make time for work that matters.

• Set goals
To get a handle on how everyone on your team should be spending their time, you have to “step back” and “think about what exactly you want your team to be working on,” says Saunders. Outline key goals and analyze your team’s capacity to execute on them. This will help you decide what people should be working on and what they shouldn’t and accomplish more by committing to less. It’s your job “to set boundaries.”
• Clarify expectations
The next step, according to Saunders, is meet with your team members one-on-one to communicate the priorities and expectations for their respective roles. “Tell them the top two or three areas where you want them to focus,” she says. Be specific. “The last thing you want is for someone to begin his day thinking, ‘I have seven projects to work on, where do I start?’” Also be explicit about how much time you expect people to devote to tasks that crop up from time to time. Does an unexpected client pitch meeting require a day, half-day or a few hours of prep? To prepare for an upcoming brainstorming meeting, should someone spend an hour or just a few minutes jotting down ideas? “Help him understand the quality of the work you’re expecting,” she says. But don’t micromanage, Cohen warns. “Describe the outcome you are trying to achieve and then get out of the way—let them determine on their own how best to get there,” he says. “Telling them how to do their jobs every step of the way creates bottlenecks.” Remember, adds Saunders, there isn’t one “right” approach to time management.

• Encourage open communication
Conversations with team members about time management should be ongoing, according to Saunders. “Encourage an honest dialogue,” she says. She suggests asking reports about the challenges they face, how you can help them allocate their time more effectively, and whether they need more resources. “It’s when people don’t tell you that they’re overstretched and then don’t follow through at the last moment that leads to problems.” Cohen suggests holding a quarterly team powwow for colleagues to discuss priorities. “Look at the objectives you set back in January and ask, ‘Are these still relevant? Are we on the right track? What has changed?’” he says. If you have a direct report who still isn’t making progress on his work despite ostensible effort, do “some digging” to uncover the root of the problem, suggests Cohen. “Is it the workload? Is it the way the job is structured? Or is it the person? You need to peel it back,” he says.
• Give team members autonomy
The key to improving individual productivity is to eliminate or delegate unimportant tasks and replace them with value-added ones, says Cohen. So “give your employees permission to make decisions” on which meetings they attend (or skip), which email lists they are party to, and which responsibilities they hand off. Saunders recommends encouraging them to block out large chunks of time on their calendars to get their day-to-day work done, as well as smaller chunks for “fixed expenses” like daily planning, email, and other “maintenance” chores.

• Rethink meetings
Meetings: the worst office time-suck. And yet, you need them to share information, solicit ideas, and make decisions. You can’t get rid of them, but you can surely eliminate some and study up on techniques to make the ones that remain on the calendar more effective and efficient. (Read: shorter.) The Golden Rule of meetings, says Cohen, is to “make sure you have a clearly defined purpose for each one.” He also recommends “sending out meeting material beforehand” because “it takes the reading part out of the meeting and puts the collaboration part in.” Also consider other ways to keep people in the loop, says Saunders. You could, for instance, ask each team member to create and circulate “a list or report of what he or she accomplished last week and priorities for the week ahead. This keeps the team on track and keeps everyone aligned,” she says.

• Reserve downtime
If your organization has a hard driving, 24/7 work culture, you should also consider mandating breaks for your team. Research shows that predictable time off improves productivity and morale. “The manager has to be deliberate about scheduling [downtime],” says Cohen. Even if your company’s culture is more relaxed, it’s still important to communicate when you expect your reports to work and when you don’t, Saunders adds. For example, “if you send [someone] an assignment on Friday afternoon, be clear whether you want him to be working on it over the weekend or if it can wait till Monday. People are often willing to give the extra push, but if they push only to discover that it wasn’t necessary, they end up feeling resentful and burnt out.”
• Seek help
Staying on top of the overflowing inboxes and ever-expanding to-do lists of an entire group of people is a challenge even for the most efficient among us. So you may want to enlist “outside help in the form of a coach or an HR manager” to assist you, says Saunders. If an employee is really struggling, “there are things you can do—meet with him regularly, come up with daily plans, give him more feedback—but he probably needs a lot more help than you, the lone manager, can provide”.

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