This post was updated September 15, 2022
Company culture is often the biggest impediment to employee progress and productivity.
Researchers at Harvard who studied creative work inside organizations discovered that progress is a critical source of motivation for employees. They called this “the progress principle.” It states, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
In this article, I’ll show you how to improve your company culture, so that your employees can make significantly more progress in their meaningful work.
Let’s start with some of the most common problems that undermine productivity.
3 Common Culture Problems that Decrease Productivity
I’m frequently contacted by company leaders who are concerned about their employees’ “time management skills.” They cite complaints like not enough time to focus, excessive email, and concerns about burnout.
I’d call these workflow management skills rather than “time management skills,” but it’s true that employees can often benefit from addressing these issues. However, the solution needs to start with the corporate culture, because productivity can’t be assessed in a vacuum. If you teach employees more effective skills to manage their workload, but the culture interferes with the team’s ability to implement their new skills, then the training can’t stick.
In my work with clients, these are some of the most common problems I see:
1. Constant reactivity squeezes out PRO-active time.
Leaders often share with me that the office seems to run at warp speed. There’s no time to complete important projects, they say, because their teams are constantly reacting to “emergencies” and “I need it now” requests.
This leaves little time for team members to work proactively toward achieving the significant results you hired them for in the first place.
When you work in a culture of urgency—an environment in which “everything” is considered urgent—real urgency disappears and it becomes impossible to prioritize work.
So busy professionals end up spending their days doing little else except react to other people’s priorities. This leads to days that are very busy, but not very productive, and, therefore, unsatisfying—”I was busy all day but I got nothing done!” kind of days.
2. Communication is inefficient.
My clients and their employees typically get over 100 email messages, plus innumerable chat messages, on top of voicemails, texts, and 3-5 hours of meetings per day.
Knowledge workers’ job outputs are typically the result of brainpower—things like analysis, problem-solving, ideas, and relationships. They can harness the power of technology to support this work.
That said, when these workers begin to feel overwhelmed by their communication channels, it’s a clear signal that organizational communication is inefficient. The result for the employees is mounting anxiety and increased stress.
The source of this problem is not the tools, but rather the habits that workers develop around using these tools.
A study out of Virginia Tech University shows that office cultures without clear communications guidelines are insidious to the health and well-being of workers.
The study’s authors conclude that employees need to set clear boundaries around communications, in order to preserve the psychological and physical health of employees and create a culture that’s conducive to progress.
In fact, without communication policies in place, the volume of communication is likely to increase, while worker efficiency is likely to decrease.
3. Anticipatory stress sets knowledge workers on a path to burnout.
Not only do communication guidelines need to address how team members communicate, but also when they communicate. A company that has no policies around after-hours messaging is likely to make team members feel that they need to be “always on.”
When leaders don’t think twice about emailing employees at night or over the weekends, their team members are likely to feel compelled to respond to incoming communications as soon as possible.
However, work messages that interrupt personal time are not only bad for employees, but also bad for their families.
Even if a worker doesn’t receive an email at night or on the weekend, knowing that they potentially could receive a message, prevents them from fully relaxing.
The knowledge worker remains on constant alert in a state of “anticipatory stress,” just in case a message from work might arrive.
Similarly, companies that expect workers to respond to incoming internal or external emails immediately create the same anticipatory stress in their employees during the workday.
While it’s true that a customer service rep may need to respond to an incoming email within a set amount of time, responding to every email immediately prevents thoughtful, undistracted work.
Company cultures that create anticipatory stress set their employees on a path to burnout. This is a costly proposition, since it’s much more expensive to hire a new employee than it is to fix the current culture and retain employees who might otherwise burn out and leave.
How to Improve Corporate Culture to Increase Productivity
Working around the clock can help meet a short-term deadline, but a practice of doing so won’t serve a team’s long-term goals. For sustainable success, if companies don’t want employees to burn out and quit, they need to cultivate a culture that promotes the optimal state for knowledge workers to do the work they were hired for in the first place—think.
There is a productive and fulfilling state of mind that workers can achieve when they bring the full power of their knowledge, wisdom, and experience to the job, along with other important characteristics, like empathy, kindness, diplomacy, and passion. This is the optimal state for productive work and it requires what I call brainpower momentum.
So how can corporate leaders build a culture that cultivates brainpower momentum so that each unique knowledge worker is in the ideal state to unleash their genius? Here are three strategies to get your company started:
1. Empower employees with decision-making power.
To create a more proactive company culture, you need to alleviate the sense that everything is an emergency that requires everyone’s help all the time.
One effective strategy to help achieve this goal is to define the decision-making powers held by each job function. Then encourage direct reports to make the decisions that fall within their roles without consulting you.
The time to advise direct reports on their choices is after they’ve taken action, usually during a 1:1 meeting. I call this “mentoring in hindsight.” This strategy is based on the fact that people learn much less when advice is given on the front end than they do when they have the opportunity to experience their own successes and failures and discuss them with their boss later.
Empowering your team to make their own decisions, and then mentoring in hindsight, provides you with more thoughtful proactive time to do deep focused work. This is because your direct reports won’t constantly check in to be sure you approve of their choices.
It also gives your employees more control and clarity, which makes them happier and more productive. Over time, by delegating decision-making, your team members will learn, grow, become more independent, and be more accountable. Win-win!
2. Make information self-serve.
One communication habit teams can work toward is shifting from mostly synchronous to mostly asynchronous communication.
Synchronous communication, such as meetings and live chats, happen in real time. A person asks a question and expects an immediate response. (Too often email is treated as a synchronous form of communication when it shouldn’t be.)
Asynchronous communication occurs on a platform when the expectation is that the person making the request will wait some amount of time for a reply.
There are a variety of tools you can use to communicate asynchronously with clients or colleagues. You can record a message on Zoom or on a voice recorder on your phone, and then attach the recording to an email. You can upload a document to a shared server and ask team members to post comments.
While traditionally, offices have relied more on real-time synchronous communications, the pandemic and resulting remote work has shifted the balance a bit.
I encourage leaders to lean into more asynchronous communications, since this allows employees to respond to requests or provide information at a time that works for them.
3. Take advantage of reputation capital.
Most likely, your corporation has worked hard to build up its reputation capital, which is the positive buzz on your company. Anyone interested in your services has done their research and heard about the reputation of the organization, or a specific team member, before contacting you. Since there is only one of you, they are likely willing to wait a reasonable amount of time for a reply.
By eliminating the requirement for employees to respond instantly, leaders can slow down the pace of the organization, creating more room for thoughtful, proactive work.
And by clearly outlining what sorts of communication are acceptable after-hours, as well as defining response times to incoming messaging during the work day, you can eliminate anticipatory stress, protect personal time, and reduce burnout.
Build a Corporate Culture That Supports Productivity
If there’s one thing that’s clear to me from my two-plus decades in the productivity industry, it’s that knowledge workers need to use their unique combination of skills and personality to be productive and satisfied with their work.
Too often, a company’s culture undermines the ability of employees to do the deep-thinking analytic or creative work you hired them for in the first place.
However, there’s good news: No matter how entrenched your company culture is, once you apply the right strategies, you can build a culture that better supports employees to make meaningful progress each and every day.