Gone are the days when employers assessed the productivity of their team members by who spent the most time at the office and who sent emails around the clock. At least I hope those days are gone, since all of the latest research shows that these employee behaviors lead to burnout.
In fact, an always-on environment (what I call a “culture of urgency”) undermines the very productivity leaders aim to cultivate.
By productivity, I mean the ability to make progress toward achieving your company’s most significant results.
One traditional metric of workplace productivity includes evaluating whether employees are producing more results with the same amount of effort. Another is measuring the growth of the company in terms of revenue and profits. These are quantitative metrics that can be measured objectively and provide a helpful look back over longer time horizons—months, quarters, years—to determine whether you’re meeting company goals and objectives.
Don’t Rely Solely on Quantitative Metrics
A knowledge worker is anyone whose main output is the product of thinking. This includes creative types, senior executives, and software developers, as well as those in more task-oriented roles such as administrative staff.
When it comes to evaluating knowledge workers, quantitative productivity metrics don’t help in the short term.
It’s not uncommon for knowledge workers to be very busy every day with meetings and digital communication. Only months later, when the team leader reviews quantitative metrics, does the leader realize that the team members have made little progress toward achieving their most significant results. The opportunity cost here is huge.
So quantitative metrics aren’t the short-term solution for professionals. When it comes to knowledge workers, it’s qualitative metrics of productivity that matter most in the short term. So let me share some ideas for collecting this data and acting on it quickly.
The Best Measure of Daily Workplace Productivity
In my experience, the most reliable way to measure daily productivity for knowledge workers is by questioning how employees feel about their work.
Effective Questions to Ask Knowledge Workers
In order to take the pulse of your knowledge workers, you’ll want to ask a question like one of these:
Rate the extent to which you disagree or agree with the following statements, with 1 being that you strongly disagree and 5 being that you strongly agree:
I am ending today feeling like I’ve made progress on my most important tasks.
I feel like I was busy all day but didn’t get much done.
I feel frazzled.
I feel fulfilled.
Or you can ask an open-ended question like one of these:
How are you feeling about work?
How much energy do you have at the end of your workday?
All of these questions are getting at the same idea: How do employees feel about their productivity?
How to Take the Pulse of Your Team
You can administer your one-question survey using something like the “Check-In” feature on 15Five, which operates using third-party validation. This means that employees’ identities are shielded from employers, while third-party administrators can ensure the results are valid. This is important because it can be hard for team members to admit when they feel like they aren’t making progress on important work, especially when they are busy all day.
The problem is, busyness and productivity aren’t the same.
In the next section of this article, let’s explore what to do if you find employees are ending their days feeling depleted, rather than excited about all they’ve accomplished.
How to Pivot for Long-Term Productivity in the Workplace
Knowledge work usually falls into four main categories: 1) attending meetings and appointments; 2) completing tasks in service of our most important priorities; 3) communicating in a variety of ways (email/chat/phone/etc); and 4) thinking. It’s this last category that is most important, but least considered.
Have you found that your team members end their days feeling discouraged because they haven’t progressed enough toward their most significant results? It’s likely because your company leadership isn’t doing enough to protect the fourth category of office work. When leaders don’t encourage the time and space for employees to do thoughtful work in an undistracted way, employees are more likely to provide negative responses on your pulse survey.
Thinking is the engine that fuels knowledge work.
Thinking time involves planning, developing strategies, generating ideas, and giving thoughtful consideration to the state of our projects, our work, and our lives. In other words, it’s the driving force that empowers the productivity of knowledge workers.
Leaders in productive workplaces intentionally design time and space for employees to manage their attention and focus on their most important tasks. Leaders in this sort of work environment—whether remote or in-person—hold sacred the belief that their employees need to spend the majority of their workdays being proactive rather than reactive.
So what are some strategies you can implement to protect thinking time and give your employees the time and space to do thoughtful work? Let’s take a look at three of my favorites.
3 Solutions to Improve the Daily Productivity of Knowledge Workers
The concepts below can help your workforce shift from operating in a culture of urgency to one in which your knowledge workers can apply themselves in a thoughtful way to their most important tasks.
If you can implement any one of these suggestions, you’re likely to see movement on your pulse check-ins in the right direction–a direction that indicates improved productivity in your workplace.
1. Leverage your company’s reputation capital.
Most likely, your company has accrued something called “reputation capital.” This is the result of the positive buzz on your business.
But most leaders fail to leverage their reputation capital in the service of optimizing team productivity. That is a shame.
The good reputation your company likely enjoys because of your hard work over the years means that someone who contacts you wants to do business with you, and not with your competitor. By the time they contact you, most likely the potential customer or client has already done their research and chosen you.
The time investment the potential client already has made by researching your company means that your customer service rep doesn’t need to reply immediately. In fact, the customer is likely to give you some grace period, especially if you have automated services (voicemail, email autoresponders) that set expectations for the client.
It’s better to have your employees provide thoughtful answers to customer queries that are truly responsive, rather than dashing off quick replies just for the feeling of crossing that message off their list.
I urge you to take your reputation capital into consideration when building a communication policy, which I’ll discuss in the next section.
2. Create a communication policy and model it.
Our “always-on” 24/7 communication culture is one of the key culprits in employee burnout. Or more specifically, the habits we engage in—like allowing constant distractions from our devices—seriously undermine our productivity.
An organization or team-wide communication policy explicitly outlines what platforms workers can use to communicate what types of information, and when.
A communication policy can be an essential organizational tool for protecting proactive thinking time. However, to be effective, leaders need to model the behaviors outlined in the policy, and everyone needs to call out violations.
Let’s take an example: A communication policy might state that for urgent or time-sensitive issues, text or phone is the way the information should be conveyed, not email. If the boss then emails someone and follows up with a chat a few minutes later saying, “I sent you an email, did you get it?”—this undermines the policy.
If every email could be an emergency, then you need to treat every email like it is an emergency, until you know that it isn’t. So how could you focus on anything else, when emails arrive practically every minute? A good communication policy will specify what types of messages should be sent over email and when.
Read my post How to Create a Team Communication Policy to Improve Productivity for detailed instructions on how to design and roll out this type of policy.
3. Train your team to use a workflow management system.
A workflow management system can give employees increased control over all of their responsibilities.
However, I often see company leaders make the mistake of thinking that all they need to do is purchase a productivity tool and disseminate it to their team members. But this is like giving novice golfers a set of pro clubs and expecting them all to hit a hole-in-one without teaching the strategies and techniques involved with playing a great round of golf.
In other words, without productivity skills, productivity tools are useless.
When workers are trained to use a workflow management system, they develop a collection of habits and behaviors around these tools that greatly increase their ability to organize all the details of their personal and professional lives.
I train teams to use the workflow management system that I developed over the past two decades. When implemented organization-wide or team-wide, the Empowered Productivity System consistently improves individual and organizational productivity.
How to Measure Workplace Productivity
I wrote this article to help leaders understand why qualitative metrics—like how employees feel about their work—are the best metrics you can use to measure the productivity of knowledge workers in the short term, and why short-term metrics are important.
If you’d like help implementing the solutions above to increase your employee productivity, or if you want to hear about additional solutions, please feel free to contact me for a free discussion about what’s possible for your organization.