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Productive employees share a few common attributes, and they’re not what you might guess. It’s not a genetic predisposition for concentration, nor is it an innate ability to override distractions. In fact, a person’s natural capacity to be productive has little to do with how productive they actually are. More influential, by far, is a person’s environment. A key starting point for any leader learning how to increase productivity of employees is understanding that, at least in this case, nurture wins out over nature.
Perhaps the reason productivity has grown into such a popular area of research is because it lies within our control. While things like number sense and athleticism are largely limited by innate ability, productivity develops in near-direct proportion to the effort put in to improve it. Better still, it’s a generalizable skill that aids success in almost any undertaking.
Productivity research teems with tactics individuals can use to drive their own progress. It prescribes time management techniques like Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique (working in 25 minute bursts), prioritization rules like the rock-and-sand system (separating big “rock” tasks out from smaller “sand” ones), and environmental shifts like strictly designated work areas. There is no shortage of solutions for an individual person looking to increase their productivity. However, for team leaders wondering how to increase productivity of employees as a group, the way forward is murkier.
This article will help you better understand how to increase the productivity of employees collectively.
How to Increase Productivity of Employees as a Group
Below we share three major factors that are at the heart of employee productivity. Integrate these elements into the way your organization operates and you will not only drive improvement on an individual-by-individual basis, but you will elevate the whole team’s baseline productivity.
1. Smart Workflows Are a Must
Team productivity happens by design. It’s realized through regular stretches of unbroken focus, but facilitating those episodes requires intentional prep work.
As a leader interested in how to increase productivity of employees, you need to understand the critical role that smart workflows play in enabling it. As with anything, we encourage you to explore the expansive body of productivity research for yourself.
If you can’t currently devote resources to extensive research, start with these three tactics. Each comes highly recommended by experts who have devoted their professional lives to understanding how to improve workflows for maximum productivity.
Practice Prioritized Planning
Step one in getting workflows right is knowing what’s urgent and important, and what’s not.
If you spend four days completing a grueling report that’s due three weeks from now, but then cram a week’s worth of work into one long day in order to meet a Friday deadline, you failed to prioritize — or at least failed to prioritize well.
While this example might be extreme, every little inefficiency in your prioritization takes a toll on overall productivity. If you’re exploring how to increase productivity of employees, gather all the tasks you need to complete over a set period of time (a week, a month, or a quarter — whatever makes sense for your team) and rank them in order of urgency and importance. If a task requires multiple steps, break out what those steps are and list them in order of priority, too.
Prioritized planning means that when a team member completes one task, they’ll immediately know what comes next. Not only does this save time by establishing a preset route, it prevents an affliction experts call “decision fatigue.”
Decision fatigue refers to the fact that any person, no matter how intelligent, only has the capacity to make so many thoughtful decisions before they start to approach burnout. Once they’ve crossed that threshold, they’ll need to rest and reset before they regain the cognitive capacity to make quality evaluations again.
Legend has it that Steve Jobs wore his famous black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers everyday so he could devote his valuable decision making power to more important matters before collapsing into decision fatigue. Though it’s not a great idea to ask your employees to only wear black turtlenecks, you can help them be more productive by making prioritization decisions in advance so that they can put their cognitive resources to use for real work.
When something unexpected comes up — and it inevitably will — don’t derail. Just calmly wedge the new task into your existing prioritization (it might go straight to the top) and carry on according to plan.
Focus on One Thing at a Time
Establishing workflows that enable teams to focus on singular tasks is an effective tactic that anyone wondering how to increase productivity of employees should adopt. Whether that means assigning one person to various steps within the same project or having your entire team address related tasks on the same day, thoughtful project management gives your workflows a logical continuity that’s great for productivity.
When employees constantly have to switch gears between tasks, it’s almost impossible to get in “the zone.” That’s because every time employees switch from one task to another, they incur something known as the cognitive switching penalty.
Cognitive switching penalty is exactly what it sounds like: everytime you switch to a new type of task, your brain has to load a new set of operational rules, goals, and context.
It’s the mental equivalent of what would happen if you tried to cook a complicated recipe and play a clever opponent in chess at the same time. Neither of these activities is at all mindless, so you would constantly have to recall your opponent’s last move, how many tablespoons you just added, whether you’re about to lose your knight, how long the dish has been in the oven …
Due to the cognitive switching penalty, attempting to jump back and forth would diminish your performance of both tasks. For best results, you should give your full attention to one task at a time.
The same goes for tasks completed at work. When it comes to understanding how to increase productivity of employees, avoiding the cognitive switching penalty as often as possible is a must.
Externalize Your To-Dos
This next recommendation comes straight from the philosophy of productivity expert David Allen, the mastermind behind Getting Things Done (GTD) Methodology. According to Allen, two questions are at the heart of productivity:
- What am I trying to accomplish?
- How do I allocate resources, attention, and activity to make that happen?
External tracking systems are key to answering the second. He regards the mind as a tool best used for creative problem solving and spontaneous innovation. It can alternatively be used as a mental notepad, but that’s far from the best way to put a person’s cognitive resources to use. For leaders looking into how to increase productivity of employees, allowing the mind to, “have ideas, not hold them,” will be key.
To point the brain in the right direction (and drive optimal productivity) it’s helpful to use an external project tracking and management tool so your employees never have to double as notepads.
Enable your team to be maximally productive by documenting their tasks somewhere accessible so when it comes time to get work done, they can put their full creative resources behind the task at hand.
2. Happy Employees Are Productive Employees
It bears repeating: employee happiness is not a nice-to-have; it’s a proven contributor to company success.
Happy employees are 31% more productive, have 37% higher sales, and take 10 times fewer sick days than their unhappy counterparts. When it comes to the positive outcomes correlated with employee happiness, those statistics are just the tip of the iceberg.
Why does happiness have such a big impact on performance? When employees are happy, they adopt a more optimistic outlook, perceive more (and better) opportunities, and as a result drive more significant entrepreneurial success.
For leaders wondering how to increase productivity of employees, boosting happiness is a smart path forward. Focus on the three areas below to build a solid foundation and then go forward from there:
Prioritize Work-Life Balance
Employees who are unhappy outside of work are unlikely to be happy at work either.
When it comes to supporting employee happiness, step one should be making sure work never negates holistic health as a priority. Are your employees getting enough sleep? Do they have time to unwind and recharge? Are they able to maintain their fitness? Wellness related factors like these affect attention, energy, and mood. Unsurprisingly, when wellness is high workplace performance soars, and when it’s low performance dips.
In addition to making sure your team is able to stay healthy, consider the fact that the happiest employees are ones who lead fulfilling lives outside of work, too. For most people, work is just one element of a multifaceted identity. Employees who balance their many interests are the happiest (and therefore, most productive).
Don't Underestimate Workplace Relationships
Workplace relationships are one of the biggest predictors of employee happiness as well as a major source of workplace motivation. If you’re searching for how to increase productivity of employees through increased happiness, pay special attention to peer-to-peer relationships.
To foster strong professional relationships, many leaders turn to peer-to-peer recognition programs. These programs allow colleagues to publicly celebrate teammates who lent a helping hand, lived up to company core values, or delivered an especially wow-worthy performance.
Peer-to-peer recognition programs train employees to focus on the good things their teammates are doing, which inspires similar positive behavior in the future. It ultimately incites a positive feedback loop that drives strong relationships and successful collaboration.
It can be helpful to give your team members opportunities to get to know one another outside of work, too. Company-sponsored happy hours, team lunches, and group outings are a great way for employees to get to know one another and build the kind of close peer-to-peer relationships that drive happiness and productivity.
Attend to Both Internal and External Happiness
Finally, if happiness is to be the solution to how to increase productivity of employees, you’ll need to address two distinct types of happiness: internal and external.
External happiness has to do with what’s going on in an employee’s surrounding world. Is your office a maze of sparse, cement cubicles or a welcoming space with snacks galore? It’s not hard to imagine which bodes better for external happiness.
On top of designing a great physical work environment, fostering external happiness means supporting employees in leading a lifestyle likely to promote happiness — that includes everything from corporate perks and social events to generous support for wellness initiatives.
Internal happiness, on the other hand, comes from within. It might seem like internal happiness is something that remains outside a manager’s realm of responsibility — and to be fair, it does depend heavily on an individual’s mental health and a myriad of other personal circumstances. Nonetheless, the best managers can still have a positive influence on employees’ internal happiness.
Considering that work is such a huge part of employees’ lives, it’s natural that they look to their careers for a sense of purpose. Periodically communicate with your team members to let them know how their individual contributions drive the company forward and talk openly about the value your company adds to the world at large. By doing this, you’ll take on a positive role in boosting internal employee happiness, which is a critical part of learning how to increase productivity of employees.
3. Engagement and Productivity Go Hand-in-Hand
The connection between engagement and productivity is fairly intuitive. After all, to be engaged means to be actively absorbed in the task at hand, which of course allows work to flow much better than when it’s eked out between episodes of mind wandering. Research confirms that engaged employees are 22% more productive, not to mention that they produce higher quality work.
It’s important that leaders researching how to increase productivity of employees are realistic about the fact that engagement will ebb and flow. If your employees are working at levels of 100% engagement 100% of the time, they’re probably racing towards burnout.
To support sustained engagement (which in turn supports productivity) establish a high level of baseline engagement, then punctuate it with episodes of peak engagement. Not only is this mixed-method approach refreshingly realistic, but it infuses employees’ workflows with a kind of variation that also breeds engagement. Win, win, and win again.
Establish Baseline Employee Engagement
Which of these circumstances would make you feel more engaged? A work environment where you don’t receive feedback or a setting where you are recognized, thanked, and celebrated for meaningful contributions?
It’s a no-brainer.
To be engaged employees need to feel seen and valued. Especially at larger organizations, it’s easy for employees to lose sight of their own importance. One of the most reliable ways to promote employee engagement is through an established recognition program, led by managers but inclusive to all.
If you’re just starting out with employee recognition, begin by setting small, quantifiable goals — something like three recognitions sent per manager per month. From there, you can build your recognition program up until messages of appreciation flow freely among your whole team. As this happens, your team’s baseline level of engagement will rise.
While there are many methods to measure employee engagement, across all use cases the trend is clear: when it comes to raising baseline engagement levels, employee recognition programs get the job done. Leaders who are serious about learning how to increase productivity of employees should make recognition a key pillar of the initiative.
Induce Episodes of Peak Engagement
In the early 1990s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe episodes of peak engagement. Csikszentmihalyi helped found the field of positive psychology, which centers around understanding “what makes life most worth living.” Flow is part of the answer.
It’s a common (but nonetheless wonderful) phenomenon in which a person becomes so absorbed in the task at hand that their sense of self loosens and, in some cases, disappears altogether. Neurologically, people experiencing a state of flow show decreased activity in the default mode network, a neural circuit believed to generate one’s sense of self. This underscores the validity of the subjective experience.
Triggers for flow vary widely depending on the individual, with people experiencing flow while doing everything from singing and dancing to coding. When working in flow, productivity is estimated to rise 500%. In the quest to understand how to increase productivity of employees, flow is a critical part of the answer.
So how do you trigger this (almost magical) state of engagement? It’s less complicated than you think.
The easiest approach is to find out which tasks your employees find intrinsically motivating, and simply let them do those things. From there (given that distractions have been eliminated or significantly reduced), flow will come naturally.
For tasks where it’s a little harder to sink into this state of deep engagement, experts recommend starting with a “dash” of unbroken concentration. A span of about 10 minutes will do. Give yourself permission to stop once the 10 minutes have elapsed, if you want to. The trick is, you probably won’t want to. Pair this technique with a clear goal, minimal distractions, and the appropriate level of challenge, and voila: there you flow.
After trying it yourself, educate employees about this technique and encourage them to select tasks they think are good candidates for inducing flow. Then, sit back and watch productivity rise.
Start With Public Commitment
If you follow through with what you’ve learned about how to increase productivity of employees, you’ll quickly realize that this is not an effortless process.
In the same way that you publicly commit to uphold other company core values, you should communicate team- or company-wide that productivity is a priority. Be sure to address why it’s a priority, too — think back to the reasons you started researching how to increase productivity of employees in the first place, and share them with your team.
If you start with an open and shared commitment to productivity, your team will have some context once you start taking measures to boost their productivity. Clear communication also puts more people behind your goal, which makes it easier to achieve.
Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
Possibly the most important thing to understand when trying to increase productivity of employees is that everyone is different, and there isn’t a perfect one-size-fits-all solution. Though the recommendations shared here are an excellent place to start, to reach a truly optimal state of productivity, you’ll need to experiment with what works best for you.
On both a team and individual level, it’s important to make room to fail, learn, and eventually succeed. Encourage interested employees to embark on their own exploration into the vast field of productivity research, and if they come across compelling techniques, give them room to test them.
Understand that the skill of optimized productivity is built up over time, and getting there is a nonlinear journey. It’s best to embrace the fact that you and your team will all be learning, working, and improving your productivity together.
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