Francis Wade | Managerial restraint important to protect employee productivity
When should managers restrain themselves from taking advantage of employee fears? Since the days of slavery, those in power have faced the temptation to use workers' anxiety as a way to get work done.
These recessionary times are no exception, but today, this behaviour comes at a cost - a possible drop in employee productivity.
While our economy is showing some welcome signs of life, few believe that employment will improve in the short term. As a result, over several hard years, employees have become pliable - more likely to follow orders.
Unfortunately, this situation also hurts managers. Robbed of critical feedback needed to do their jobs effectively, they make simple mistakes that add up, reducing the company's productivity. Here are three everyday examples.
1. Grabbing personal time from employees via smartphone:
A growing number of managers have figured out a tricky shortcut. Giving you, their employee, the gift of a smartphone is seen as an investment with a hefty return on investment ( ROI).
The logic is simple. As a senior HR manager explained to me: "When the company gives you a smartphone, the 'obvious' expectation is that you must make yourself available at all times to answer it."
While the policy she described wasn't written, anywhere, as its unlikely victim you would quickly come to realise that your new gift comes with strings attached. Now, you are expected to carry the device with you, answering it on weekends, vacations, sick days and overtime hours at home, in church, during parties and even while you are lying in bed.
Like many behaviours of this kind, you may not be able to see the problem by yourself. In extreme cases, it may take a spouse or friend to point out the obvious - You have become a modern-day slave to a 24-7 obligation.
When I make this observation to executives, it's usually impossible to find someone who is willing to take responsibility for the problem even though it's not irreversible. Managers have a powerful weapon in their arsenal restraint. With mindful behaviour, they can turn the tide. When they go further and advocate proper policies, they can make a difference for everyone, preventing the worst from happening, such as a bitter war waged by email which breaks out one Sunday at 5 a.m.
2. Forcing employees to respond to email quickly:
This particular problem starts slowly. A manager expresses annoyance because you, her employee, has not responded to a message in her inbox in a timely manner. She demands better performance. Unfortunately, your answer is to develop the new habit of checking email up to 15 times per hour, just in case.
This has an immediate effect - your manager is happier, especially when other employees follow suit in order to avoid her wrath. But it's a pyrrhic victory. After a while, you and your colleagues develop a worst-practice that's hard to shake - multitasking.
The manager who is aware of these repercussions learns to restrain her annoyance. She adopts a best practice - refusing to use email for urgent communications. Instead, she reserves time-sensitive conversations for two-way channels, such as in-person conversations, phone or WhatsApp.
The best managers understand that without this practice, it's easy for one annoyed manager to set off a contagion of time-wasting. Once again, the only way to turn back the tide on this dangerous expectation is to implement explicit written policies that protect everyone.
3. Insisting on lowering walls to watch employees and cut costs:
A top executive once told me that she ensures that staff has low cubicle walls so that she can "keep an eye on them". It's a popular technique used by managers in environments of low trust, even when workers have multiple university degrees.
The root causes are never truly explored. Instead, they are justified by comparing the out-of-pocket expense of low versus high walls. When a recession is raging, any reason to cut a cost becomes a good one.
Unfortunately, there's a high price to pay. Recent research shows that open office plans destroy productivity by offering up a slew of visual and audible distractions. They prevent employees from entering the flow state where their best work is done. Instead, they are forced into "continuous partial attention", where one distraction interrupts the other, leading to a host of unfinished tasks.
Frustrated employees learn that the only way to do good work is to come in early and leave late, or give up weekends, holidays and even sick days to work from home. Ultimately, low cubicle walls represent a "shortcut which draws blood" a long-term obstacle to high productivity and engagement.
It's all too easy for the clueless manager to operate in the dark, inflicting these three behaviours on a fearful staff. Fortunately, neither restraint nor explicit policies are expensive remedies, but they do require a level of enlightenment that is far too rare in the 21st century Jamaican workplace.
- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of "Perfect Time-Based Productivity". To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email email@example.com