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Four Conversations to Boost Productivity During a Recession

Chaff, separated from wheat

Photo by Lincolnian –(AWAY)–

Collaboration is the new productivity.
Leo Babauta

The recession is challenging all of us to achieve more with less.

Whether you’re a manager facing a hiring freeze (or even redundancies) or a freelancer burning the candle at both ends, chances are your resources are shrinking and the demands on your resourcefulness are growing.

So following on from my piece about How to Motivate People during a Recession, this article will offer some suggestions for boosting your productivity without adding extra team members or spending any money.

The first thing you can do — right now, for free — is to download a copy of my Time Management Training ebook Time Management for Creative People. It’s licensed for free noncommercial distribution, so you are welcome to pass it on to your colleagues and contacts. It contains plenty of tried and tested advice to help you and your team improve your working habits and deliver more value each day.

But getting individuals to change their work habits isn’t always enough. While teaching time management in organisations, I’ve noticed that many of the barriers to productivity are created by the company culture:

But people are constantly interrupting me, it’s impossible to concentrate in the office.

But I have to be at my desk all day every day, even though I know I can get more done at home.

But we’re expected to be constantly checking e-mail — if I switch it off, I might miss something urgent.

But everyone has to attend the meeting, whether it’s relevant to their work or not.

In some cases there are good reasons for these rules — but often they are the result of habit and unquestioned assumptions. And they can cause huge productivity losses, as well as massive frustration in people who are chomping at the bit to get on with their work.

So here are four conversations for you to have with your co-workers, to help you find more effective ways of working together. If you can get agreement on any one of them, I guarantee you will save far more time than it takes you to have the conversation.

1. Agree Priorities

This one is about sorting the wheat from the chaff. When things are going well, it doesn’t matter so much if you have competing priorities, or if people are wasting some time on inessentials. But when times are tough, you need to make sure everyone understands the real priorities, and is 100% focused on making them happen.

Changing circumstances may call for a change of strategy, or you may need to hold the same course but redouble your efforts. Either way, it’s better to talk and make the strategy explicit than assume that everyone has the same assumptions about it. It may take some tough negotiation, but things will be much tougher if you avoid the negotiations.

2. Looking Busy vs Being Productive

One of the biggest drains on productivity is people having to put in ‘face time’ at their desk or in meetings when they could be more profitably engaged elsewhere. To an extent, this is an inevitable part of teamwork — we need to keep others in the loop about what we’re doing, and collaboration demands communication. But beyond a certain point, ‘looking busy’ becomes a substitute for being effective.

So people come into the office five days a week and achieve less than they could by spending a couple of days of uninterrupted work at home or in the library. Or they sit chained to their desk trying to think clearly amid the office bustle, when a stroll in the sunshine or trip to a cafe with a notebook would vastly improve the quality of their thinking. In places like this, saving face means losing time and opportunities.

An extreme solution is the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), created by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson and first used at the Fortune 500 company Best Buy. In a ROWE, employees are paid purely by results, not by the hours they work. They are free to work whenever, wherever and however they like, as long as they deliver on agreed performance criteria.

With ROWE:

  • There is no need for schedules
  • Nobody focuses on “how many hours did you work?”
  • Nobody feels overworked, stressed out or guilty
  • Work is not a place you go, it’s something you do
  • People at all levels stop wasting the company’s time and money
  • Teamwork, morale, and engagement soar
  • There’s no judgment on how people spend their time

ROWE is all about results. No results, no job. It’s that simple.

CulturRX website

You may not want to go this far, but the chances are your team could benefit from a discussion about the difference between looking busy and being productive. Does everyone need to be in the office every day? Is it OK to be away from your desk? Do we need the whole team at this meeting? Sometimes, a little flexibility can generate a lot of productivity.

More on ROWE in this interview by Tim Ferriss.

3. “May I Interrupt You?”

When one person interrupts another’s work, it costs the company money. The New York Times reported on some unsettling research into the effect of interruptions at work:

In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites.

“I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist

It’s hard to quantify the cost of such interruptions, but the NYT article included the following estimate:

The productivity lost by overtaxed multitaskers cannot be measured precisely, but it is probably a lot. Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business-research firm, estimates the cost of interruptions to the American economy at nearly $650 billion a year.

That total is an update of research published 18 months ago, based on surveys and interviews with professionals and office workers, which concluded that 28 percent of their time was spent on what they deemed interruptions and recovery time before they returned to their main tasks.

Of course, interruptions can also create value — provided the interruption is about a genuinely more important issue. So it’s everybody’s responsibility to make sure that the company’s overall ‘balance of trade’ for interruptions is not in deficit.

Before interrupting a co-worker, encourage everyone to ask themselves: ‘Is this important AND urgent enough to justify interrupting?’

You can make huge productivity gains if you agree on a system for making requests that are important but not urgent. E.g. instead of interrupting someone at their desk, drop your request into a specially designated ‘request inbox’ (real or virtual), including the time when you need a response by. This benefits everyone — the more consistently the ‘interruptees’ response to requests dropped into their inbox, the more confident the ‘interrupters’ become in using the inbox, and the less tempted they will be to interrupt.

4. E-mail Rules of Engagement

If left unchecked, e-mail can slash your team’s productivity. Recognising this, some companies have a rule that if an internal e-mail conversation generates more than five replies, someone has to pick up the phone. At others, they have ‘e-mail free Fridays’. Some only allow their people to check e-mail at specified times.

Maybe none of these systems will work for your company — but the worst system of all is to have no system. Most e-mail problems are the result of never having thought about how to use it effectively, let alone discussed it within a team.

Spend half an hour as a group identifying (a) your biggest gripes about e-mail, and (b) what you can do as a team to resolve them. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • If you need a response today, don’t rely on e-mail. Pick up the phone or go and see them. This means no one is under pressure to check internal e-mail more than once a day (client-facing employees are an obvious exception) and can devote their time to more productive activities.
  • Batch process e-mails. It’s far quicker to answer 30 e-mails at one sitting than it is to keep stopping and answering them one at a time throughout the day.
  • Use e-mail for correspondence, not conversation. Correspondents don’t send letters every five minutes. Correspondents take care over what they write, and keep their reader in mind. Correspondents don’t expect an instant response.
  • Take the conversation elsewhere, such as a conference call, Instant Messenger or private team forum. Or better still, sit down in a room together. You’ll have a more productive conversation, you won’t be clogging up your inboxes, and you’ll all feel better.

For more e-mail tips, check out my Delicious e-mail bookmark.

BONUS: If you prefer watching video to reading, here’s a time management training interview in which I explain some of the key concepts of creative productivity.

What Other Conversations Should We Be Having?

Which of these conversations are the biggest priority for you?

What other conversations are needed to boost productivity?

Any other tips for boosting team productivity?

Would you like your team to be more creative and productive?

If your team could do with some help getting creative work done in the midst of the demands and distractions of the 21st-century workplace, ask me about running my popular time management training workshop Time Management for Creative People for your organisation.


  1. Mark two suggestions. A free card to ask for help. Having worked through a number of recessions, things come up that people have never had to deal with before. A real time spinner is them trying to handle it or ignoring it until it becomes a full blow problem. If someone insists on a weekly meeting then make sure there is an agenda and that it is about steps you can take to improve what you have been doing and not just a review of the past.

  2. Thanks Rosanne, great suggestions. (‘Free card’ = ‘permission’, right?)

  3. Yes! One of those things that I have always used and not totally sure where it comes from.


  1. […] Four Conversations to Boost Productivity During a Recession Mark McGuiness, writing on his Wishful Thinking blog out of the UK, recently posted a nice summary of how to balance collaboration with productivity at work. […]