Sunday, 17 March 2013

Squeezing people for time disincentivizes efficiency

Managers are usually generous with the time they allocate when a new employee does something for the first time.  It's common sense: a person takes longer than usual to perform a task that's new to them.  Once they become proficient they will speed up as their efficiency improves.  If something takes 4 hours the first time, it could be reduced to an hour once a person learns the ropes.

During this learning phase an employee knows this and they don't feel pressured to work in a hurry, and that's not a bad thing.

What too many managers do though is claw back all of their initial generosity once their incumbent has done the task a few times.  Thereafter it's back to giving them the absolute minimum amount of time to finish and once again the employee must rush to complete their work.  "The honeymoon is over, time to work."

When this modus operandi repeats itself a few times, the employee will stop trying as hard to master any new responsibility.  They will see little sense in trying to do anything too quickly because it just means they'll be slapped with something else to do once they finish.  It becomes the office equivalent of adopting a go-slow.  Workers on assembly lines aren't the only ones who purposely slow their pace down when there's something they're dissatisfied with.

Here's a proposal to such managers and business owners: When a person does something a bit faster, let them enjoy some of that productivity improvement.  Don't always shove the next task onto them the instant they finish.  Let them tend to personal emails, do some personal errands or even randomly surf the Internet.  Fine, there are operational and departmental requirements and there's always work to be done, but you don't have to eke every ounce of energy you can out of your employees.  This way they're incentivized to improve their efficiency and what would normally take 8 hours on go-slow mode will take them 6.

The only way you can have a truly productive staff member is if they take personal responsibility for their output rate.  So you may think the difference between a person who works 8 hours to get a task done and one who takes 6 hours and uses the remaining 2 for personal errands may seem like nil to a manager, but if you keep trying to dictate the pace that a person should work at they will:

1) Start hiding things from you, work slower and never bring any work to you earlier than the deadline.
2) Keep an eye out for another job.  It's the most undignifying thing when you don't allow another person any discretion over their time.

When your back's against the wall and there's a near impossible deadline, you need staff that are motivated and voluntarily want to meet the deadline, not an indifferent group of people.  This is where the difference makes itself felt.

People often forget that a manager-employee relationship is not the same as a parent-child or teacher-student relationship.  More autonomy must be afforded to an employee.  And nobody can work flat out for 8 hours each day, every day.  Beyond improved productivity and lower staff turnover, giving a person breathing room and discretion will perpetuate a culture of personal ownership, greater trust and inevitably, greater contentment.

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