There’s a lot of talk about productivity lately, and a great debate has emerged about where employees most productive – at the corporate office or at home. What if the conversation was less about location, and more focused on the outcome? When organizations talk about wanting their employees to be productive, what they really mean is that they want to see progress toward company goals and tasks getting done.
Seeing someone at their desk working on an excel sheet long into the evening may give bosses the warm fuzzies about that employee being dedicated, hard working, and driven. But if productivity is about efficient production of goods or services, then late night spreadsheet gal is NOT your role model and probably isn’t the most productive employee either, especially if the late night work didn’t yield the delivery of a finished report. What it probably yielded is a missed yoga class and microwaved dinner. Imagine if that same person was toiling away late into the night from home. Who would even know?!
To be productive, you have to produce.
And while we can count the check marks on a to-do list or the hours spent at the computer, those surface level measures aren’t helping us. As knowledge workers who can’t see the building be built or the widget produced, we need measures that help our work become visible. I want to know that that showing up (either in-person or virtually) and working hard means my work matters to my organization and to my leaders. In order to cultivate this glorious feeling of a day well spent, those of us who reside in the physical and virtual cubiclehood need three key ingredients:
2) A plan
3) Progress on things that matter
Purpose – why are we doing whatever it is that we’re doing?
The work that lays before us each day can be filled with meaning or be as empty as my coffee pot by 1pm. It’s like the story of the bricklayers – you can either lay bricks or build a cathedral, the work is the same. Knowing the presentation you’re working on will help drive a key decision that will make your customers happy, that’s good stuff! Or that same presentation can just be one more thing your boss delegated to you to get done this week. Work without meaning is work that will be much slower to cross the finish line than work with meaning. Figure out the why of the task, and it can fuel you to not just get it done, but to do it well. Even if the purpose is to turn a profit, figure out who it will help, and get ‘er done.
In a past life, I used to implement HR and payroll software systems for clients. The long days and endless questions were made meaningful by knowing that these systems that were disrupting the client’s world now, would actually made their work easier as soon as soon as I helped them get comfortable with the system. Knowing my work was helping them do their jobs better fueled me to be patience, to guide them, and to help us all cross the finish line of “go-live” day together.
A plan – what do you need to do today?
How many times have you showed up at work only to tango with e-mail and waltz with meetings ALL DAY LONG. You respond to the notes that came in last night and sent out new ones to your co-workers who are also beginning their day, back & forth you go until you dance off to the first of many meetings or video calls that pepper your schedule. A few are critical, some helpful, most not, but the dance continues until your land back at your desk for the next round with the inbox. This isn’t productive, it might even meet the definition of insanity if you think doing this dance everyday is the ticket to advancing your career. Instead, take 5 minutes at the end of your workday, and leave yourself a list of the top 3 things you want to accomplish tomorrow and block the time you need today to finish them tomorrow. No time? Then it’s time to make space in your schedule for real work.
Progress on things that matter
While whittling down your e-mails feels good, it’s not necessarily work that matters. Neither is cleaning your desk, listening in to a status update while you stay off camera to finish your budget report, or making a beautiful PowerPoint recommendation deck when an simple e-mail would suffice. Each day, your primary focus should be rolling the big rocks of your department closer toward their goal. Unfortunately, some of these strategic initiatives are slow moving and dependent upon others. So instead of driving toward completion, we look for other less important things to finish to get that check box high. As leaders, we need to dig into these initiatives, identify milestones that lay between started and done, and tell people when you achieved them. This is critical if you working remotely. Your boss can’t see you toiling away at your desk, or the done section of your kanban board. While we think that good work is evident, we need to take the time to share our wins, what’s next, and where we need support.
Productivity is a practice, much like law, or medicine, or project management. There’s always room for improvement, and it starts with being intentional. Whether you slip on your yoga pants, jeans, or slacks, make these three key actions part of each work day and your build your productivity muscles right along with a stellar reputation.