4 Organizational Mistakes That Plague Modern Knowledge Workers18 May, 2016 / Articles
In the new world of “work without walls,” work happens in brains instead of factories, in open floor plans instead of private offices, and at soccer games, beaches, and coffee houses in addition to corporate headquarters. And yet in my work with clients, I often discover old ideas about time management that don’t take this new reality into account. Four mistakes in particular come up again and again.
Inadvertently tethering your employees to their email.
Is it common at your company for email to be used for urgent and time-sensitive communications? Do you expect an immediate response to emails? Even if you don’t expect an immediate response, do your employees think you do? Do they think you will look more favorably on an immediate response? Do people get frustrated when others in the organization don’t answer emails right away?
If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you may have unintentionally created, or allowed, a culture where employees are forced to always leave their email open and downloading, being distracted by every new message that comes in—whether or not they decide to answer it. This puts employees in reactive mode all day, preventing them from thoughtfully prioritizing their work and ensuring constant task-switching.
I think it’s safe to say that at least some of the work of your company requires sustained focus of longer than two minutes. Studies show that constant task-switching means that tasks will take longer and the quality of the results will be lower. Constant multitasking also makes us more prone to making mistakes, more likely to miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity.
Engage your leadership team to help put a stop to using email for urgent and time-sensitive information. Designate another communication channel, such as phone or text message, for these situations. Ensure that your team knows that your emails do not require an immediate response, and that they can safely close their email or work offline when they need to focus and get important work done. Supporting single-tasking will help employees to feel less scattered and distracted, and therefore less stressed and more focused.
Another way to offer this support is to give your staff the gift of your presence by turning away from your computer and putting down your smartphone when meeting or speaking with them. Encourage “technology-free meetings” whenever possible. All of these habits will help to make your employees more focused and contemplative, and you’ll be modeling the behaviors, and therefore encouraging a culture, that will benefit the individuals and the organization as a whole.
Improperly implementing your open office floor plan.
The only uncontested information about open office floor plans is that they reduce the square footage requirement for companies. Proponents say they also improve collaboration and innovation, and opponents report that they cause higher stress and lower concentration, motivation, and cognitive functioning. There is research that supports both positions, perhaps because open offices are more often implemented poorly than well.
Although the research is conflicting, it’s still useful. It shows that the most benefit comes from the opportunity for employees to collaborate, socialize, and blow off steam. Increased natural light and access to windows are additional benefits of open offices. So you can use this knowledge to consider:
- Coffeehouse-like spaces with comfortable seating arranged in small groups.
- Designated “loud” spaces with table games or spaces where more spirited discussion and engagement can take place.
- Outdoor seating or work areas.
- Desks on wheels, giving employees their own “domain,” which can be moved around as their work, and their mood, dictate.
- Glass walls.
Conversely, most studies cite noise, distraction, and employees’ loss of privacy as some of the most harmful factors. So ensure that your plans address these issues, or make some changes now to fix them. Just a sampling of suggestions to consider:
- Soft furnishings that absorb noise instead of hard surfaces that amplify it.
- A sound system for white noise.
- Solicit input, concerns, and suggestions from employees, and include them in the planning process.
- Frosted film or patterned glass walls instead of clear glass.
- Different spaces for different types of work: balance open spaces for collaboration with quiet spaces for focused work.
- Incorporate secure personal places for each employee, where they can privately store whatever belongings they need.
- Private enclaves where people can go to take calls, serving a dual purpose of offering privacy while not disturbing others.
- Strategically placed bookcases or other room dividers.
Not considering the impact that nutrition and energy have on knowledge work.
If your company outputs are the result of knowledge work—work for which the raw material is thinking — then your team’s energy level throughout the day is a critical factor in their success. I often see two situations that involve the fuel for their brainpower, where my clients were missing an opportunity to positively impact the productivity of their organization:
- Catered meeting menus
- The office kitchen
Proper nutrition begins at home, but leadership can have a significant impact on performance factors during work hours for on-site employees. In addition to being damaging to health long-term, energy roller coasters (usually caused by blood sugar highs and crashes) throughout the day are distracting, undermine focus and concentration, and impact performance. Meetings often include foods high in carbohydrates and refined sugar that cause blood glucose to spike and then crash during the morning hours. Swapping bagels and donuts for egg sandwiches, breakfast tacos, or yogurt parfaits (protein and low-glycemic foods) can help to prevent these wild swings in blood glucose.
This is not only true for morning meetings, but afternoon snacks as well. Healthy snacks offered in the break room, instead of junk food in the cabinets or vending machines, can pay big dividends in supporting your team’s energy management throughout the day. These can include baby carrots, hummus, nuts, fruit, cheese cubes or spreads, or all-natural granola bars.
Invest in a filtered water source for the office, and consider stocking the fridge with seltzers and natural, unsweetened teas instead of sodas, because water promotes proper hydration (another component of nutrition) and doesn’t affect blood sugar.
Healthy sources of sustained energy for brainpower can improve productivity by up to twenty percent.
Not setting up telecommuters for success.
Working from home is on the rise, and with good reason. It could help your company save money on real estate, building maintenance, and office infrastructure. And it could make your employees happier, thanks to greater flexibility and less travel time. But even if you have a telecommuting policy, you may be overlooking potential trouble spots when your employees start working from home. Like open floor plans, these aren’t necessarily the fault of the policy, but of the implementation. Often, remote work situations evolve organically, without intention, and result in problems for both the remote worker and the team dynamics. Some managers still believe personal tasks and issues will distract employees if they work from home, and that they’ll slack off if they aren’t directly supervised. Ensure that this is based on evidence and results rather than personal bias. Success metrics must be clear and agreed upon in advance, and managers may need training on effective leadership of remote workers. In addition to management issues, the employee might not be ready to handle the distractions of working from home, or well-suited to a remote work situation.
To improve the odds of success, plan carefully with employees and their supervisors before telecommuting begins. Your conversations should cover topics like these and offer solutions in each answer:
- Is the employee’s job suited to remote work?
- Is the employee already self-directed and self-motivated?
- How well does the employee manage distraction? The employee who’s always looking at Facebook or drawn into co-workers’ conversations at the office will likely have similar distractibility problems at home.
- What kind of technology infrastructure will be required to keep the employee connected? Does the company, and the employee’s home, have this necessary infrastructure?
- Can the employee use (or learn) these tech tools needed for telecommuting?
- What will the employee’s work-at-home setup be like? Does he have a dedicated workspace that’s conducive to productivity?
- Will other people (especially children or others requiring care) be present during work hours?
- How do the employee’s supervisor and teammates feel about telecommuting? Outdated beliefs about “face-time” and personal biases can influence morale and effectiveness of the telecommuting policy.
- Do telecommuters need a different evaluation practice than you have for in-office workers?
These questions provide a good start to correct any challenges your remote workers might be facing.
Changing communications practices, updating the office floor plan, revamping the snacks, and evaluating the remote work conditions—none of these require radical changes. Often the trouble spots arise organically over time, without intention. Directing some attention to them, and evaluating each with fresh eyes, can positively impact performance, morale, culture, and ultimately, productivity.