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[Excerpted from my upcoming book, EVERYONE WANTS TO WORK HERE: Attract the Best Talent, Energize Your Team, and Be the Leader in Your Market, Sourcebooks, 2023.]

Leaders often tell me their team needs to learn how to prioritize. They believe that, in most cases, this is due to a gap in the team members’ skills. And it’s true that may be part of the problem.

But in my experience, the main reason the team has difficulty prioritizing is not that they don’t know how; it’s the challenges of communication that are the real culprits.

The frequency, volume, and expectations of the company’s communication have inadvertently created a “culture of urgency,” and are preventing the ability to control how work flows through the department. This means that work comes from everywhere, all at once, with no clarity about what’s most important.

 

The Culture of Urgency

Consider how your team members receive their work. Are they able to approach their days intentionally and methodically? Or do they receive work primarily via constant and haphazard requests from colleagues, vendors, and clients via their numerous communication channels, like email and chat?

The latter puts employees in a difficult situation, especially if there is an emphasis in the organization on being “responsive” to internal and external communication. It results in a “culture of urgency,” where team members feel pressure to stay on top of messages instead of tasks.

These messages typically come at them all day long, so “staying on top of them” squeezes out time to complete tasks that move their important projects forward.

Also, in an environment where “everything” is considered urgent, real urgency disappears. In this situation, busy professionals end up spending their days doing little else besides answering emails and chats and attending meetings, thus allowing truly urgent situations to get lost in the shuffle.

It’s not that the team doesn’t know how to prioritize; it’s that the culture of urgency is preventing them from doing so.

Everything seems to have the same level of importance. This leads to days that are very busy, but not very productive.

 

Your Team Needs Clarity to Know How to Prioritize

When the flow of work is not managed effectively, tasks end up lurking inside an overflowing inbox, hidden among long, rambling chat threads, buried in notes they take during meetings, and maybe supplemented by lists on paper.

This emphasizes the details and ignores the big picture, and it is unproductive in several ways, including:

  1. Making proper prioritization practically impossible.
  2. Preventing an opportunity to see a relationship between projects.
  3. Obscuring problems that may be lurking in the process, which propagates unexpected “emergencies.”
  4. Contributing to extended work hours, with employees often feeling the need to “catch up” after work hours.
  5. Causing team members to end their work days feeling unsatisfied, and like they didn’t really accomplish anything.

Your team members need to understand their primary goals and responsibilities, get clarity on the tasks needed to achieve those goals, and understand the importance of communication from colleagues, customers, and vendors so they can understand how to prioritize.

When leaders spend more time analyzing and organizing how work flows through the organization and providing clarity to the team, this broader perspective of operations has several benefits:

  • It provides a focus on continuous improvement of business operations.
  • It ensures increased efficiency in processes and procedures.
  • It helps create a reservoir of “learned knowledge” so the organization can benefit later when mistakes are made.
  • It supports the systemization and standardization of procedures, making them more scalable.

Make Information Self Serve (Asynchronous)

To provide the clarity their teams need, leaders must assess how their team members receive work, and make sure that ad hoc requests from inside or outside the team don’t derail workers’ ability to make important progress on their priorities.

A goal to aim for, though difficult to achieve, is that employees could work for days at a time without communicating in real-time with anyone else.

To be clear, I’m not recommending that team members don’t communicate with each other—only that the leader creates a shift away from constant, real-time communication to a process where information is self-serve and, therefore, asynchronous; project details, timelines, and statuses are organized and centralized in a place that all team members can access.

This allows employees to thoughtfully work on their list of tasks and projects assigned by their boss or dictated by their job responsibilities, instead of relying on incoming communication to dictate their focus and effort.

In this situation, all relevant information necessary to do that work is accessible to them, and needing to interrupt someone else to move their work forward is the exception rather than the rule. And, even when a piece of information is needed, the request can be made asynchronously—a delay in receiving an answer to their request does not hold up their work.

 

6 Benefits of Organized, Coordinated Approach to Work

The benefits of this more organized, coordinated approach to work—rather than a random, communication-based approach to work—can’t be overstated. The following are direct results, but most of my clients experience a variety of unexpected indirect results, as well. In addition to making it clear how to prioritize…

 

1. The volume of communication in the organization is drastically reduced.

Instead of “hiding” in individual email inboxes, all relevant information is centralized, organized, and easily accessible to everyone. This benefits not only the current project but future, similar projects.

2. The pace of the organization slows down, reducing the stress on all team members.

For knowledge work especially, a less-stressful work environment offers more time and space for a thoughtful, undistracted approach to work.

3. The big picture is always accessible and more often considered as the project progresses.

This helps reinforce the reasons that the work is considered important, and offers clarity about the value each team member brings to the team and the organization. “Meaningful work” is important to motivation and employee engagement, and it impacts an organization’s bottom line.

4. Extended workdays are rarely necessary, which improves work-life balance and reduces burnout.

With a more structured, organized, and coordinated approach to work dissemination, where information is accessible to all in a self-serve way, team members can spend the majority of their workdays actually doing their most important work.

5. All team members can spend their days being thoughtfully proactive rather than haphazardly reactive.

When knowledge workers can be less reactive, they feel more productive, more in control of their work, and less scattered and stressed throughout the day.

6. Both the quality and the quantity of work increase, and team members are more likely to feel satisfied and productive at the end of their workdays.

Progress is an important factor in team member motivation and fulfillment.

 

Help Team Members Prioritize by Teaching Effective Communication Habits

In many organizations, there is no common repository for information that team members need to do their jobs—or there are too many, which each team member uses according to personal preference. So, for example, some team members may prefer using email to request information from others, even when they need that information quickly.

But email was not designed to be a quick-response tool.

A different communication channel needs to be designated for more timely communication (such as phone or text), but it must be used sparingly, and only in a situation that everyone has agreed constitutes an “emergency” or timely issue.

Another common way for team members to communicate is via chat, and in this case, a benefit is that the information then can be more accessible to others. But because the requests are usually made in the most expedient way rather than the most organized way, the information is hard to find later, or by another person.

Another problem with both email and chat is that they are treated—often by the sender AND the receiver—as synchronous channels. This means the sender expects an immediate response. The receiver is interrupted via some audible or visual notification that the message was received (the first problem), and feels pressure to respond (the second problem).

Note that by using the “in-the-moment” choice of methods for sharing information, the tendency to respond to disruptions caused by poor communication choices—and the expectations of both the senders and the receivers—are all behaviors and habits.

The apps and software in use in the organization are not the root cause of the inefficiencies—the behaviors are. Said another way, it’s not the tools, it’s how the team uses the tools.

With no guidance from leaders about how to communicate efficiently, how to prioritize communication within their other responsibilities, and guidelines for how to use the tools the organization has in place, individuals make problematic decisions.

The negative consequences then spiral out of control—busyness over productivity, compounding inefficiency, overwhelming volume of communication, long work hours leading to burnout and turnover, unhappy employees due to unproductive days, poor project planning, an inability to prioritize—the list goes on and on.

 

Leaders Need Help with How to Prioritize, Too

Often, the guidance described above isn’t in place because the leader doesn’t know how to create it. Or, the organization is big enough that guidelines for one department quickly fall apart in the face of cross-functional teams. This is a challenging problem, but it is possible to overcome.

It’s best if these issues are raised by a member of the senior leadership team, because that can eliminate departmental conflict.

But whether you are a senior leader or a department leader, you can start by adding to the agenda of a leadership meeting the goal of identifying the primary projects of each department, and the place where the project information will be tracked and stored. It will be necessary to determine who is responsible for the tracking and updates.

Also, discuss company-wide communication guidelines, starting first with which tools are synchronous and which are asynchronous, when it’s unclear. Meetings are clearly synchronous, but what about chat? Email? Text messages? For example, if it’s acceptable to send email in the case of a time-sensitive issue, then everyone must treat every message as if it is time-sensitive. This results in constant distraction.

For sample guidelines for team communication, refer to my prior article, Hybrid Work Environments Require New Communication Strategies. (Look for the chart near the bottom, and you’ll also want to consider a project management tool if you don’t already have one). For help with the implementation of these ideas, reach out for a complimentary consultation at maurathomas.com/contact.

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