9 simple but effective ways to improve employee productivity

Employee engagement may be the business buzzword of the day, especially when we start looking for ways to improve employee performance. But what about employee productivity?

These concepts aren’t necessarily the same thing.

It’s entirely possible to have a bunch of happy, engaged employees who love their jobs but aren’t terribly productive or hard-working. It’s also possible to be surrounded by productive employees who aren’t engaged at all. So, how can you ensure your engaged workforce is also as productive as possible?

Despite what you may think, improvements in employee productivity don’t always require raises, lavish gifts or a promise to work remotely. Many times, going back to the basics of good people management is all it takes to generate greater productivity from your workforce.

Here are some of those basics, which should help you lay the foundation for improving employee productivity.

  1. Establish values

Core values help you decide who you’ll hire, define how and why you are in business, and identify who your clients are. Values explain to the world and your employees what is to be expected from your company.

Your company’s values should be clear and easy for people to translate into actions. Values will determine what constitutes good performance. After all, values without a clear measure of what productivity looks like won’t be very effective.

For example, a hospital may decide that caring customer service is a core value. So, what does that look like for different hospital employees?

A display of good customer service for an orderly may translate into walking a patient to the location of their next procedure, versus just giving them directions. For an accounts payable manager, displaying caring customer service may mean helping a patient sort out a billing error that would have cost them a lot more out of pocket.

Different roles often require different applications of core values. But at the end of the day, it should all contribute to those values being reflected and upheld throughout the organization.

  1. Communicate clear goals and instructions

Some basic blocking and tackling can help your employees better understand their jobs, and thus be more productive. First, a well-written job description clarifies the responsibilities of a position and helps managers and employees establish clear, relevant performance goals.

Next, regular interaction with their direct manager is a proven driver of employee productivity. That’s because their manager ideally is helping them resolve roadblocks, brainstorm solutions and better understand how their individual activities support the overall organization.

If a manager’s expectations aren’t clear, it’s likely that employees will become confused, bored or resentful and more focused on their own survival than how they can help your business succeed.

  1. Keep deadlines realistic

Before you give your employees a deadline to meet goals or complete projects, you need to realistically determine:

  • What milestones will be used to measure progress?
  • What steps are required to meet the goal?
  • How much time should it take to complete the goal?
  • Is our timeline challenging but achievable?
  • What other projects is this person or team handling, and is their overall workload realistic?

Again, clear direction about goals and objectives will be vital to the success of the project.

Be specific about the milestones that will be used to gauge success. Don’t make your employees struggle to identify what those milestones are. Confusion or lack of firm direction causes frustration, which wastes time and generates unnecessary stress.

Some managers like to keep pressure on their teams, believing this spurs productivity. However, when you don’t allow adequate time for employees to meet deadlines, team members are likely to feel overworked and frustrated. Tempers may flare, and employees are more apt to disengage than to work together toward a common goal.

  1. Balance accountability and authority

It’s important that each manager strikes a balance between accountability and authority.

Accountability means setting expectations and putting clear, meaningful consequences in place. Positive consequences include constructive feedback, increased responsibility, and simply knowing that milestones and progress are measured. Negative consequences might include having to work late to fix a problem, being denied a promotion, or failure to earn a productivity bonus.

But, to be clear, more responsibility must be accompanied by the authority to get the job done. That means providing adequate resources to them and their team, as well as the latitude to make decisions and execute their own ideas. They’ll also need direct access to management, stakeholders and other decision-makers to get timely buy-in and approval.

You and your employees need to find the right balance between performance goals and the autonomy in deciding how to achieve them.

  1. Remember to listen

Effective managerial communication is about more than talking and sending explanatory emails. Listening is the other vital component to improving employee productivity.

Yes, managers shape productivity and engagement using the vision and mission established at higher levels of leadership. But good managers realize that information needs to flow both ways.

That’s because, oftentimes, employees are on the front line dealing with customers and handling day-to-day issues. You’re missing out on good sources if you’re not tapping into your employees’ knowledge base and experiences.

That forklift driver may be able to suggest a new maintenance procedure that reduces your repair bill and makes the machinery last longer. But you have to listen to their suggestion first.

It may shake up your idea of how communication is supposed to flow, but it encourages employee engagement.

  1. Don’t micro-manage

Your job as a business leader is to be the coach on the sidelines, available for questions and suggestions. A micro-manager gets on the field, duplicating or undermining their team’s efforts to play at peak performance.

It can be one of the hardest lessons for a manager to learn, but setting clear expectations, providing training and direction, and then letting employees do their job is a manager’s job.

A healthy management style means you check to make sure milestones are being met, but you don’t expect every detail of the project to run through you.

It takes finesse to know when to not over-communicate and over-manage, but when you do, you’ll be rewarded with employees who flourish.

Having some latitude is fundamental to whether people are happy and productive. They will thrive with a degree of autonomy and flexibility to help your clients or see something through to final resolution.

  1. Celebrate success

Employees want and deserve recognition when they contribute to the success of your company, so look for ways to celebrate both individual and company milestones. Make time to acknowledge the good work they’re doing and the milestones they’re achieving.

Monetary rewards are always appreciated but aren’t usually what motivates employees to work harder. A simple, genuine “thank you” goes a long way toward boosting employee morale because it acknowledges work well done and encourages repeat performance.

Feeling like they’re a valued part of a team and are making meaningful contributions to the company are more powerful motivators than money alone.

For example, you could sponsor a contest for employees who suggest innovative approaches to revenue generation, cost containment, safety improvements or customer satisfaction measures, and then reward them for it. It doesn’t have to be anything big – it’s more about the idea of being recognized and appreciated.

Should you wish to add a few gifts to the mix, there are many low- or no-cost ways to reward your employees, such as gift cards, pop-up coffee bars, team T-shirts and myriad other inexpensive gestures of appreciation.

Never forget: Lack of recognition may drive your best talent to look for jobs where they’ll get the appreciation they deserve.

  1. Train, retrain and promote

To keep employees productive, don’t focus so heavily on the here-and-now of your company’s needs that you overlook training and development. If you invest in employee skills, you’ll foster loyalty to your company and build your bench of future leaders.

Also remember, what employees want in their career development changes throughout the stages of their lives.

Just-out-of-college employees may want the experience necessary to gain a promotion, while a mid-career employee may seek new challenges by making a lateral move into a different department. A subject-matter expert may want to take classes on an emerging technology rather than be trained to manage people.

Not everyone must be hard-charging and fighting for promotion to be productive and a real asset to the company.

Create employee development plans that lay out how your employees will acquire needed skills, whether that’s through training (formal or on-the-job), coaching or mentoring. To keep them motivated and productive, you’ll need to follow that training with situations that allow them to use what they’ve learned.

  1. Manage growth

Measures of productivity change as a company grows. When small businesses grow from five employees to 30 to 200, the ballgame changes.

Communication is organic when there are four, five or even 10 people in a company. As you grow, people tend to be hired for a specialized area of expertise and departments can become silos, making easy communication more challenging.

Left unattended, you end up with a bunch of hard-working people who rarely speak to each other or work in multidisciplinary teams. In such cases, you may have departments or individuals who meet or exceed all measures of productivity, but the company overall may be struggling to meet its goals.

If you’re in this situation, it’s time to take action.

When the business was small, it may have been a foregone conclusion that “this is what we believe, and this is how we do business.” But, as you grow, make sure your core values and expectations are solidly defined in your policies and employee handbook – and that they’re communicated during hiring and onboarding.

You’ll probably need to revisit and update old procedures and processes to make sure operations are as smooth and supportive of employee productivity as possible. But it will be time well spent as your company continues to grow.

Ready to learn more about how to increase your employees’ productivity, performance and focus? Download our free e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.

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