Boost Employee Engagement and Employee Productivity with these 2 Key Steps (Part 1)
With shocking speed, we’ve fallen into a major downturn in the oil patch. Capital projects have been cancelled and jobs and budgets have been drastically cut. The Petroleum Human Resources Council just reported that 53 per cent of oil industry organizations surveyed are decreasing their workforce. Announcements of hundreds more lost jobs at energy companies are in the news. Combined with the underlying skilled labour shortage in the energy industry and baby boomer retirements, this means many companies have to work harder to sustain business results and achieve more with fewer people. Maybe it feels like we’ve been here before, but this time the challenges are more difficult than ever.
Why? Both life and work are moving at a faster pace and dealing with higher volumes of tasks that leave most people whirling through a maelstrom of busyness. Being overwhelmed has become a nasty, unavoidable habit. Executives, managers and employees race through their days reactively, struggle with information overload, spend hours in ineffective meetings, drown in emails and shoulder the burden of ever-increasing demands. In this stressful state, we lose our balance, our energy is sapped and we slip into survival mode, where fight, flight or freeze seem like our only options. When we are in this mode, we can kiss productivity goodbye.
The figure below shows how the Yerkes-Dodson stress law affects human performance. They say, “When you’re talking about either physical or mental performance, we all need some stress to motivate us to perform well, but too much stress will hamper our ability to perform.” As stress increases, performance levels also increase for a while, but if stress levels are too high, this causes performance to go down. Everyone has a different optimum stress level and once we surpass it, performance declines. But that’s not all. “The resulting frustration, fear of failure and fear of the consequences of poor performance can lead to all sorts of psychological issues from irritability and absenteeism, to problems at home, breakdowns and substance abuse. In a business, it can also lead to high turnover rates, which is one of the biggest problems facing independent advisory firms today.”
Many of us respond to increasing workloads and higher demands by putting in longer hours. But this takes its toll mentally, physically and emotionally. Yet we see no other way of getting everything done. Aware of our tiredness, irritability and the stress that people feel, managers and employees alike may be far less in tune with their decline in engagement and motivation, the increasing tendency to become distracted and the inexorable deterioration in work quality and quantity, which is the opposite of our intentions.
How can we all break out of this unsustainable way of working and create a much healthier state of higher energy, enthusiasm, engagement, motivation and productivity without burning the midnight oil and forgetting the names of our kids?
Executives, managers and employees alike fundamentally desire the same highly engaged and high-performing capability. We call this engaged productivity. It’s the ideal state for all employees and the organization. People are energized and motivated, happy and productive. Performance is high, especially on what matters most. A positive, committed attitude prevails, especially when obstacles and setbacks show up. Like right now.
This article and the next will detail five key steps to create engaged productivity, and illustrate the importance of executives, managers and employees working together.
Step1: Over-communicate your double vision
Double vision means maintaining a long-term, strategic view while providing short-term clarity for the changed economic conditions. This places the current challenges in the context of the big picture, which is important context for everyone to understand. A long-term view informs us that a drop in the price of oil is part of an ongoing cycle, not an isolated episode. So let’s treat this as a process, not an event, by thinking and acting strategically. Executives need to keep a positive and future focus balanced with clear priorities for the short term.
If your company’s purpose and vision is clear and motivating, reinforce it and share with employees how your organization will not veer from this path no matter the obstacles in the near term. Be as specific as possible with your decisions and what they mean to plans, projects, goals and priorities. Avoid generalizations and ambiguity. Aim for clarity with detail. When times are tough, employees and managers perform better when there is clear and specific direction.
- What can executives do? Be clear about both short-term goals and long-term vision. Communicate them repeatedly. Also, make sure you’re clear about job security for all those remaining after lay-offs are done.
- What can managers do? Engage staff in conversations about short-term goals and long-term vision and how their contribution makes a difference. Connect them to the big picture. Make sure their goals and priorities are aligned with corporate goals.
- What can employees do? Make sure you are clear about what is expected of you and that you understand the big picture and how you fit. If you’re not sure, ask.
Step 2: Manage yourself, not your time
In a recent survey of 350,000 people worldwide by Franklin Covey, people admitted to spending up to 40 per cent of their time on unimportant or irrelevant tasks. This is a surprising number considering our increasing workload. How have we traditionally tried to resolve this? Time management training has been the go-to for decades; however, there are new schools of thought that state this is the wrong focus. The new approach, proven to be effective at increasing efficiency and productivity, is to manage your energy not your time. Executives and managers in particular can benefit from these new disciplines and can help employees embrace the same approach and techniques.
Personal energy management is about physical, mental and emotional self-care. It’s about taking a break, slowing down and looking after yourself in order to rejuvenate, fill up your tank and build inner strength so you can meet your goals with clarity, creativity and capacity. It’s counter-intuitive and it works. But we ask ourselves, “How can I spend time taking care of myself when I have so much to do?” Our natural tendency is to work harder to get through our endless to-do lists when this is exactly the time when we need to focus on self-care. If you are going to be extreme in how you work, you need to balance this with extreme discipline around your self-care.
Physical self-care: We all know what we should be doing to get physically healthier yet many of us don’t follow through because we don’t give it the priority it deserves. How can we expect our bodies to sustain high performance in return for poor nutrition, not enough rest, and sedentary activity for hours on end? This is what should be counter-intuitive to us! Countless studies show that regular exercise gives you better concentration, improved memory, quicker learning, increased mental stamina, lower stress and more creativity. It also reduces irritability, elevates mood and fosters better workplace relationships. As a bonus, exercise also allows your mind to focus on other things, which is valuable reflection and subconscious processing time. All these have a positive influence on performance and productivity. Even a walk at lunchtime can make a difference.
Managers and employees alike need further encouragement to exercise more, eat healthier and sleep well. Executives can model this behavior. Getting enough sleep requires a different mindset about working long hours. It also means forming different habits, such as setting an earlier bedtime, not drinking alcohol in the evening and setting your alarm to give you enough hours of sleep even if it means starting work a little later each day.
Mental and emotional self-care: Backing away from your desk can improve your mindset and mental well-being a great deal. Our brains have a limited capacity in working memory. Studies show that we can only focus our attention for about 20 minutes at a time. Try chunking out your day and taking small breaks of one or two minutes every 20 minutes to relieve your brain and allow it to rest between periods of intense focus.
Avoid distractions and the temptation to multi-task. A quick win is to stop checking your email every few minutes and change your daily habit to checking email in chunks two or three times a day during lower energy times. Some companies have even banned emails on weekends and evenings to benefit everyone. Could you consider this?
Remove other distractions and interruptions and keep focused. Your brain will thank you. One research study showed that it can take up to 20 minutes to get back on task after getting distracted. Another showed that interruptions can increase the time it takes to complete the original task by as much as 25 per cent.
One of the most effective lifts to your emotional state and motivation comes from making progress in meaningful work. Positive psychology has taught us that reflecting on what you’ve achieved will combat stress, energize you and keep you focused on your most important work. Try writing a “Well Done!” list of your accomplishments on a regular basis. It’s a Have Done list rather than a To Do list. Some people do this every day. One study showed that employees who did this had a performance level 23 per cent higher than colleagues that didn’t.
Be aware of your peak energy times and plan to tackle tasks that require your most focused concentration during those times. For many people this is in the morning, but it may be different for you. Notice the times you are most capable of focusing your attention, when you feel most energized and when you are most motivated. These are all hints that you are in your peak energy time. Also notice when your mental energy is least focused. These may be good times to get some physical exercise, such as yoga, or to meditate.
Yoga and meditation are accessible, effective and scientifically proven practices that impact our physical, mental and emotional well-being. It’s about becoming more mindful and centered and is an important component of executive presence. We spend far too much time focusing on the past, which we cannot change, and the future, which is where our fear of the unknown lives. Anchoring ourselves in the present through breathing (both meditation and yoga are based on this simple process) allows us to regenerate and take a break from all that drains our energy. They are easy to incorporate. Start by taking time to pause and reflect at least twice a day for 15 minutes, concentrating on your breathing. Closing your eyes and focusing on just breathing and being present in the moment will create a more mindful, regenerative state.
- What can executives do? Keep employee wellness high on the priority list, even if it’s hard to justify in tough times. Requiring high-octane performance without allowing time to refuel is unsustainable.
- What can managers do? Walk the talk and model good self-care practices. Create the culture that promotes and rewards physical, mental and emotional health. Put policies in place to support this. Provide education, resources and time for employees to follow through.
- What can employees do? Take a look at each element of self-care and admit where you could improve. Create a plan of action and enlist others to help you keep on track. Be as concerned about your own self-care as you are about meeting deadlines and getting results at work.
In the next column, we’ll look at three additional techniques that will help your organization during these uncertain times.
This article was first published in Oilweek online magazine April 3, 2015.