Best Practices


I have read that annual gains in U.S. worker productivity have been diminishing in the last few years. Not coincidentally, a McKinsey Global Institute study from 2012 reported that knowledge workers spend about 28 percent of their time managing email. There are certainly some evident signs that the same technology that allowed productivity to rapidly increase in the 1980s and 90s may be having the reverse effect on our lives now, both in the workplace and at home. This article is devoted to some of my favorite tips for increasing productivity in the workplace.
Since we all spend a lot of time dealing with email, lets start there. One of the best tips I have heard over the years is to ensure that you dont handle emails multiple times. When you read an email, decide what to do with it: Either handle the issue, delegate the issue, delete the email due to lack of importance, or file it for future reference in the appropriate folder where you can retrieve it if the need arises.
Handling the same email multiple times is wasteful and unnecessary. If you dont need that kind of information, get yourself off the Cc list so you dont have to keep reading and deleting. On a similar theme, give thought as to whether reply to all is really necessary, and avoid bombarding others inboxes with potentially unnecessary work.
While on the topic of email, I recommend making the subject line of the email clear, especially when you are seeking a decision or action from someone. It is also useful to include the deadline for such action. For example, a subject line reading Needs your action: Budget submission by Feb. 1, 2016 is much more useful than one reading Budgets 2016.
Training is an area to scrutinize for productivity improvement. I am a big believer in training where it is relevant and important, and where the skills will be utilized on the job. However, in my experience, many training courses – both internal and external – are way too long. If you are conducting or arranging training, challenge the trainer to be more efficient and concise, and set up a follow-up process for handling questions after the training is complete.
Consider, too, whether your company is conducting sheep dip training: the kind of well-intentioned training planned and administered to a wide audience that has little follow-up, no reinforcement, little accountability, and low relevance to what happens on the job. If you need to give training to a wide audience, ponder how to improve its relevance and utility before proceeding. Try to use instructors who are part of your workplace, real case studies from your company or field, more interactive or hands-on training experiences, and involvement of supervisors so that they can reinforce skills and learnings.
Another area to consider is that of documents and presentations. Do you consistently produce or receive 30- to 40-page documents? Are your training manuals or process documents so long and confusing that no one could ever really figure out how to do something by reading them? I suggest that you establish some expectations in your group or your company that documents should target a certain maximum length (10 to 15 pages) and that process and training manuals be concise and clear. So much time is wasted not only creating such verbose documents, but also reading and editing them.
Having too much on your plate can lead to reduced productivity – it has been shown that multi-tasking and the ensuing lack of focus lead to less work getting done. Be sure that you pay attention to your personal two-by-two matrix of the urgent and the important. Too often, we attack the urgent and never get to attend to the important issues, leading to the non-attainment of the annual goals that we diligently put in place.
Be careful not to accept significant new initiatives or projects unless you agree on their prioritization and resourcing with your supervisor, and if appropriate, adjust the timing of some other goal. Also beware of accepting numerous smaller but time-consuming activities that will affect your productivity and that of your teams. Typical activities that fall into this general category include adoption of new systems or processes, general training, new leadership initiatives, expanded meeting schedules and the like. Of course you cant say no to everything! So the key is to be sure to accept only those new initiatives that are clearly important, and for which you can estimate the resourcing requirements and rebalance accordingly.
A final area to think about for productivity improvement is the overall category of checking up on the work of others. Of course there is a need for checks and balances in business in order to protect the company from negligence or embezzlement and to ensure the quality of the products and services delivered to customers. Remember, though, that the effort and cost to do the checking should be commensurate with the risks involved. You may have various audit processes in place in your company, and here, too, look carefully at the way in which audits are conducted. Make sure the frequency and effort is appropriate, and that they are not missing the most important areas of risk. In our industry, where a lot of money is spent on testing, consider whether there is unnecessary or duplicative testing being done in your research labs or manufacturing plants.
If you have other productivity tips, I would love to hear about them and will share them in future articles.
Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. E-mail her at or phone (908) 400-5210.

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