This is a guest post by Maura Nevel Thomas, an award-winning international speaker and trainer on productivity and work-life balance.
As a new team leader, you’re faced with a challenge. Employee productivity is now at least in part, up to you. How will you increase your team’s productivity so you can continue to drive value at your company?
As a first step, I encourage you to pause for a moment and consider what’s truly productive. Research shows us that many old ideas about productivity actually undermine success. In other words, habits you thought were helping you get ahead — like working long hours or being constantly available and responsive — really just set you up for burnout. And since you’re now a leader, your team will model your behaviors. Which means that you might be creating a work environment that is driving the entire team toward burnout.
So it’s time to change course, for your sake and your team’s. But how?
What REALLY Increases Team Productivity?
First, leave behind the idea that productivity means being on call 24/7. That might feel counterintuitive while everyone else is bragging about how busy they are. But “busy” and “productive” are two different things.
You might feel busy when you always drop what you’re working on whenever your colleagues need something, and when you never disconnect from the office, even on weekends or vacation. (If you take vacation at all!) But when you work this way — or expect your team to work this way — true productivity suffers. No one can do their most important work amid constant interruptions and changing priorities. And we all need breaks to replenish our creativity and mental energy.
Instead, the most effective approach to productivity is through attention management. Attention management means directing your attention where you want it to go. It’s keeping the myriad distractions in our always-on world from hijacking your attention. It’s about being proactive, instead of always reacting to what’s happening to you.
For new leaders, mastering attention management is especially vital. You have more demands than ever competing for your attention. Plus, your behavior sets the tone for your team’s productivity. To get started with attention management, try these three strategies that will benefit both you and your team.
Take Time For Focused Work
Your first instinct might be to drop what you’re doing any time a team member needs you. While it’s great to be accessible, it becomes a problem if you never get uninterrupted time for your tasks that require deep thinking. When you switch your attention back and forth between tasks, your work both takes longer and decreases in quality. And if you put no boundaries on interruptions, that sends a signal to your team that you expect the same from them — which means they never get to apply focused attention to their work, either.
Everyone will accomplish more if you establish an environment that enables periods of uninterrupted work. For example, you could tell your team: “Hey, I need to devote an hour to this report. So I’m going to close my door and sign out of email. Please come get me only if there’s an urgent need.” You could also work with them to create guidelines around interruptions. For example, if someone is wearing headphones, that’s a signal that they’re doing focused work and don’t want to be interrupted.
Curb After-Hours Email
Employees who receive after-hours emails feel stressed and anxious, research shows. And when your team is mentally frazzled, they are hardly going to be at their most productive.
You may be telling yourself something like this right now: “This isn’t a problem for my team. They know that if I email them late at night that it’s just because I want to send the message while it’s fresh in my mind. They understand that I don’t expect them to reply until they’re back at work.”
However, I urge you to question your assumption. Your team members pay a lot of attention to what you do. They probably figure that if you are on email at all hours that they should be, too. Regardless of whether you intend to tether them to their email, that’s what happens.
To give everyone a respite, stop or drastically reduce your after-hours emailing. Set a policy to help your team do the same. One rule could be no emails after 7 p.m. or on weekends. Another idea is to use calls or texts for urgent, after-hours communication, not email. Work whenever you feel is appropriate for you, but use the “scheduled send” feature in your email client so that the message isn’t delivered until normal business hours.
Did you know that taking vacation time makes you more successful at work? U.S. workplaces aren’t seeing all the benefits of paid time off, though. That’s because American workers are leaving more and more vacation time unused.
To improve your team’s productivity, encourage them to take all of their days off, every year. And don’t expect them to frequently check in while they are gone. You want them to return to work rested and rejuvenated. But that won’t happen if part of their attention is always back at the office.
Once again, your team needs to see you modeling productive behavior. Your example will give them the confidence to practice healthy attention management themselves. If you tell them to take their vacation time, but your own goes unused, then that’s what they’ll remember.
These three techniques will enhance your team productivity — and yours as well. You can learn many more strategies like these in my new book, “Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity — Every Day.“
About the author
Her proprietary Empowered Productivity™ System, a process for achieving significant results and living a life of choice, has influenced the practices at organizations, such as the U.S. Army, L’Oréal, and Dell. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, author of three books, and was named a Top Leadership Speaker for 2018 in Inc. Magazine. Maura is frequently cited as an expert in major business outlets including Forbes, Fast Company, and Huffington Post, and she’s also a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, with articles there viewed over a million times. Follow her on Twitter @mnthomas.