Is your team busy enough?

Year-end is typically performance management time in many workplaces. Leaders who are too busy to be in their offices, or those who lead geographically remote teams, often ask me: “How do I know if my team is productive enough?” This is an especially tough question to answer when you aren’t around to observe. Don’t rely on your own ability to estimate how long a job will take – leaders are notorious for setting unrealistic expectations and assigning a 3-day job with a tomorrow deadline. Short of hovering for a few days (and the productivity of whomever you’re spying on will undoubtedly go up) how can you know if all employees are working at their highest capacity? Here are some tips:

1.      Comedian Jerry Seinfeld said, “It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day just exactly fits the newspaper.” Think about the work you are assigning. Is it exactly the right amount – amazingly? If everything is getting done well, and you think perhaps your team is not busy enough, you are probably right. Rare is the employee who will come and ask for more work. One way to increase productivity is to increase expectations. Ask for more and you’ll often get it.

2.      Suspect the yes person. If every time you unexpectedly ask for something the same team member says, “I’ll get right on it” you need to wonder how they are managing. Do you ever hear the words, “I don’t have time to do that.” Or “What would you like me to defer?” If not, you’re either a completely unapproachable taskmaster, or your team has the capacity to take on more work.

3.      Teach your team to keep you informed. When you are busy you must rely on them to keep you up-to-date. Make it easy for them – whether it’s a weekly email, a one-page project summary, or a Friday afternoon voicemail that you retrieve when you have time. If someone is annoyed at having to report regularly, ask them why. Don’t be distracted by complaints of low trust and disempowerment. Empower them to do the work, but remember that people who are legitimately using bank ATMs usually have no objection to be videotaped by the security camera while doing so. Even your most senior and reliable people will understand the need to keep you informed.

4.      Are you the team’s goalie?  In other words, are you there for the save – no matter what? Examine how often you find yourself working behind the scenes to save your team members from the consequences of failure. Think about how often your team members give just 80% – knowing that you are going to fine tune and polish the last bit. Decide if it’s time to let them do it all.

5.      Pay attention to team dynamics. Resentment is usually high in a team where the workload is uneven, or someone is not pulling their weight. You often don’t have to look hard to see it. Customers and others will make a bee-line for your most productive team members, and avoid those who are unreliable. You won’t help team collaboration and spirit by secretly grilling team members about their coworkers, but you can encourage a culture where people publicly thank their peers – and see who never gets thanked. You can tell the team that you want to discuss business process improvements at the next meeting, and that means everyone.

6.      Who is the team gossip? Idle time leads to idle chatter. Some people always know what is going on, not just in their own department, but everywhere. Unless networking is a key part of their role, you need to wonder how they find time to do it. Longer lunches, chatty emails and texting all can be signs of boredom. Does the same person volunteer for the United Way and other social event planning? Perhaps they really are very socially responsible, but it could be that they have too much extra time at work. 

7.      When you are in the office, watch what happens on computers. If the screen drops down or quickly changes as you walk into an office or cubicle, it may be that the person was surfing the net, Facebooking, emailing or writing a letter home. Technology and most company policies allow you to see what’s been happening on any particular PC that is company-owned. If you don’t have a policy, put one in place. Limit the amount of personal use and ensure everyone knows that there is no such thing as a private use of company equipment and time.

Jill Malleck is an Organization Development coach and consultant who helps individuals and work teams to be the best they can be. Epiphany at Work has been offering training and other interventions for more than six years. 

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