5 silent killers of employee productivity and how to overcome them

Megan Wilson
Apr 3, 2019 · 5 min read

In a rapidly changing world that is obsessed with the creation of new information, remaining productive is almost a seemingly impossible task.

A powerful infographic by Lori Lewis and Chadd Callahan of Cumulus Media demonstrates this challenge:

It’s flabbergasting the number of distractions there are per minute. On top of that, there is an expectancy to resist the urges of these distractions and remain productive in the workplace. Fortunately, there are techniques which can be looked at to control this overwhelming demand.

  1. Take control of push notifications and unnecessary alerts

There’s an unnerving control that push notifications and the buzzing sound of the mobile phone has over the modern-day employee. Experimental psychology shows that even a two-second break from a task doubles the error rate. Take into consideration that the average person checks their phone 150 times between 6:00 to 10:00 pm, it’s a true productivity killer.

The first step to be taken is to order notifications by priority and then review the quality of them. An employee culture should be created that uses similar vibration patterns, color tones and sounds depending on the importance of a message. For example, a whistle sound from the mobile device might indicate a notification with regards to a particular project.

Secondly, it becomes important to remove all junk notifications. It’s advisable to establish a digital detox day — setting time aside for employees to unsubscribe from irrelevant mailing lists and deleting all spam notifications. Whilst it may be a loss in one day of productivity, it could result in double the outcome for days going forward.

It’s important that decisions are data-driven. Using Apps such as Memory & Quality Time, tailored dashboards are presented to understand mobile device usage. The shock of the data can inspire an immediate habit change. To solve for this, using the ‘flight mode’ and ‘do not disturb’ functions should become an employee habit and embedded in the employee culture.

2) Be purposeful about meetings.

Meeting crushes morale. Most of the time it is spent discussing processes or agreements that could’ve been dealt with over email or text… The purpose of many meetings is embedded in the distrust of employees to do their jobs. If 50% of your day is filled with meetings, when do employees do work? The best approach to this is to create a framework for employees to abide by:

  • Calendar review, a month in advance

Employees should deliberately plan their meetings one month in advance. For each meeting, three questions should be asked before accepting or declining:

  • Am I needed in this meeting?
  • Can the discussion points be dealt with over email or text/technology (Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc.)?
  • What do I need to prepare before the meeting?

If there is a need to be for an employee to attend a meeting, then be sure to create meetings that are shorter (30 minutes, instead of 45). The shorter a meeting is scheduled for; the more employees are forced to discuss what is important. A clear agenda sent out beforehand will help define the scope and guide the necessary talking points.

As a rule of thumb, employees should only be in a meeting if they must make a significant contribution. If not, then it should be avoided at all costs. On average, employees should never spend more than 20% of their time in meetings per week. Establish this as an informal rule to encourage employees to avoid wasting time.

3) Battling “presenteeism”

Presenteeism is the art of being busy the whole day without achieving anything. It’s easy for employees to fall into this trap without clear guidelines KRAs and career pathways. Presenteeism is attributable to multi-tasking and a lack of goal setting.

Warren Buffett’s 5/25 rule is a well-known elixir to curbing presenteeism. It’s quite simple to practice. Employees should list 25 things they would want to achieve. Cut it down to 15 items, then 10 items and finally 5. Focus on achieving the top 5 priorities, and ignore the previous 20.

Similarly, an approach should be taken when working. Develop work patterns which are broken up into 5, 15 and 30 minutes. It allows for short bursts of focused energy which significantly increase creativity and reduces the error rate.

4) Overcoming decision fatigue

The average person, whether consciously or unconsciously makes roughly 35,000 decisions per day. This could range from what to eat to or what font to choose for a presentation. Consequently, decision fatigue is inevitable. Employees ability to make good choices throughout the day deteriorates due to the number of decisions needed to be made.

A natural process to follow would be to reduce the number of decisions needed to be made every day. Decisions within the personal space is easy to reduce, such as what to eat, wear, driving route to work. Furthermore, workplace rules such as meetings rooms in the same location at the same time help avoid confusion and clear headspace.

In order to make this effective, deliberate preparation and ergonomics needs to be considered. Employees should be encouraged to prepare work outfits on a Sunday, as well as the choice of meals in advance. The last hour of a Friday should be spent analyzing the week ahead. The first hour of a Monday should be dedicated to confirming the plans for the week ahead. These workplace rituals despite seeming to be ‘boring’ significantly reduces decision making and increases employee energy.

5) Personal health should be a priority

Research has shown that personal health has the strongest correlation to productivity. It is not possible for employees to be present at work if illnesses and ailments are affecting them. Investment in onsite coaches and gym facilities can be a good step to show that personal health is a priority. Furthermore, the food in the canteen should be foods that cater to a healthy lifestyle.

Despite this, if an employee is not sleeping correctly, none of these initiatives will work. Sleep or lack thereof regulates the amount of energy and employee can exert at work. It’s encouraged to sit and understand each employee sleep cycle and see how it can be helped. Many people suffer from insomnia and would need professional help. Sometimes a simple afternoon nap could work — however, workplace facilities would need to cater for this (in the form of nap pods)

Many organizations do not realize their potential due to obstacles in employee productivity. It’s often the ‘not so visible’ elements that stifle employee energy and motivation. It’s important to analyze them and make data-based decisions to overcome them. Consequently, employee and business performance are a natural product of productivity.

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