What the experts say
As a leader, it’s your job to help your people find balance. Of course, you need results, but you also want a team that’s not at constant risk of being burnt out.
Research shows that memory, attention, and concentration suffer when people try to manage the constant stream of communication and distraction that’s a regular part of the workplace. Julie Morgenstern, productivity expert and author of Never Check E-Mail in the Morning, sees this every day: “Almost everyone struggles to focus at work,” she says. “We want to think, write, and strategize, but because these functions require deep thinking and uninterrupted time, we stay busy with the tasks, meetings, and messages that pop up all day long rather than tackling really important projects.”
Liane Davey, vice president of team solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital and author of You First, agrees, noting that an overly busy office can kill morale and leave employees disengaged and less capable of getting everything done. It’s on you, the manager, to help your people cut through the chaos, reduce stress, and make sure your team can accomplish its most important work.
Focus your team on the things that matter
The first step, says Davey, is to identify the unique contribution your team makes to the organization. Begin by asking, “What does the company expect from my team that no other group can accomplish?” Don’t answer this alone in your office. Involve your team.
Once you all agree on your team’s purpose, it becomes the guiding principle for how everyone should spend their time and the litmus test for what work team members should take on and what they should let go.
Edit their workload
Evaluate each project based on whether or not it’s in what Davey calls “the sweet spot” —what you’ve previously identified as your group’s unique purpose, what they’re good at, and what’s important to the larger goals of the organization. “It’s the manager’s responsibility to develop an action plan that allows everyone to be more productive and to insulate their teams from low-priority work that may trickle down from senior management,” she says. When a new assignment comes your way, don’t automatically say yes. “Remember to consider each project with an eye to whether or not it takes advantage of what your team, and only your team, has to offer,” Morgenstern says.
Schedule uninterrupted work
“When you get distracted by something at work,” says Morgenstern, “it takes at least 20 minutes to refocus on the task at hand.” Encourage your team to set aside an hour or more (Morgenstern’s team gives it three hours) each morning for quiet, proactive work. “Be sure everyone understands that there are to be no interruptions unless it’s an emergency,” she recommends. By making it a group goal, you increase your collective focus and prevent backsliding.
Also check that your team members know how to break larger projects up into smaller tasks that can be accomplished in the amount of time you’ve set aside for strategic work each day. “Once they use this time effectively,” she says, “their productivity will improve.”
Fix your meetings
“Meetings can be a huge waste of time,” says Davey. To avoid that problem, “every meeting should include standing agenda items to allow for productive discussions and decision making about the team’s core assignments,” she says. Morgenstern suggests that managers establish no more than three objectives, decide who needs to be there, set limits on the duration of meetings, and use the last 15 minutes to clarify how the participants will move forward. Above all, make sure a meeting is really necessary. “Sometimes an email or memo can accomplish the same goal in a much shorter amount of time,” she suggests.
Set limits on email
Technology has created an always-on culture, where work bleeds into evenings and weekends. But that can be counterproductive if your people never feel they have a break. Morgenstern suggests setting boundaries on the work day and limiting after-hours emails to urgent issues.
“So many people are addicted to their phones, but over time, most people realize that there’s very little that can’t wait and that it’s far more important to connect to what’s meaningful to us both personally and professionally,” she says. The brain is actually wired for rest, adds Davey. “Without taking time to recharge, we create unsustainable levels of stress and anxiety.”
Lead by example
When setting new norms for your team, you need to walk the talk yourself. “The movement against busy starts at the top,” Davey says, pointing to the way Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn schedules time for what he calls “nothing.” Talk to your team about what you’re doing and why, Morgenstern recommends, and if one of your strategies isn’t working, admit it, try something different, and move on.
Show that you’re committed to making a change both individually and as a group. “It takes a while to break these habits,” she says, “but once you all get used to a deeper sense of accomplishment, you’ll never go back.”
Principles to remember
- Agree on what’s unique about your group’s skills and experience
- Reduce or eliminate assignments that don’t align with your team’s purpose
- Schedule time for strategic work
- E-mail your employees at all hours— set limits on technology use
- Call meetings without an explicit purpose—stick to an agenda
- Underestimate the importance of your own behavior—you set the norms
Case study #1: set a good example
“As an organization and an industry, we’re as plugged in as we can possibly be, so we have to be deliberate about managing the flow of information and staying clear about our priorities,” says Lindsey Turrentine, VP and editor-in-chief of reviews for CNET. “Otherwise, the work won’t be as good.”
In order to protect her staff from getting overwhelmed, she makes sure they know what they’re supposed to deliver and sets clear timelines for the work. “That way we’re able to meet our daily responsibilities and stay focused on our mission of creating innovative ways to deliver information to consumers.”
She regularly blocks off time in her own calendar and sets CNET’s internal instant messaging system to unavailable when she needs quiet, focused time. And she encourages her team members to do the same as long as they make themselves available at other times and coordinate with each other. “It’s not enough to simply set the limits,” she adds. “You need to take time to explain what you’re doing and why. It’s my job to make sure the work gets done and that my staff can walk away at the end of their shifts knowing that someone else is prepared and ready to take the baton.”
Case study #2: make time for your most important work
“Our employees were really struggling to manage their workload,” says Steven Handmaker, chief marketing officer at Assurance, an independent insurance brokerage. Too many emails, too many meetings, and too many interruptions had brought everyone to their breaking point. Management decided to bring in a consultant to help. His recommendation: implement priority-work time.
Every employee at every level was encouraged to schedule a certain number of hours to complete important projects. “The consultant suggested 15 hours per week,” Steven says, “which was a huge shock.”
Nevertheless, the leadership team, including Assurance’s CEO, began scheduling priority-work time in their calendars, and employees enthusiastically followed suit. “It took about six months for the entire company to get used to the new system,” Steven says.
Most employees now have eight to ten hours on their calendars blocked off each week, and everyone is responsible for supporting their colleagues and employees in doing the same. If Steven sees that his team isn’t planning and using priority-work time, it’s his responsibility to speak to them and find out why.
How successful has priority-work time been? “What we know for sure,” says Steven, “is that our employees are happier. We’ve received awards from Fortune, the Chicago Tribune, and from industry organizations for being a great place to work. But we also see internally that the rapid adoption of this practice means that it’s been successful. We respect how hard everyone works, and part of that is simply letting people do their jobs.”
Author: Julie Mosow is a freelance writer as well as the lead editorial consultant at Marly Rusoff & Associates.