Improving productivity is an important organizational goal in both abundant and lean economic times. Three common ways that leaders try to increase employee productivity are offering knowledge workers:
- Time management training
- The flexibility to work from home
- “Unlimited” vacation time.
When business is thriving, improving productivity often takes the form of time management and other soft-skills training, which are offered as professional development opportunities. When business is down, looming layoffs force employees to learn to “do more with less,” so training in productivity improvement—traditionally executed as “time management training”—is still necessary.
Research has shown that working from home raises employee productivity, so offering workers greater flexibility in when and where they do their jobs is a second productivity improvement tactic. Lastly, it’s well-documented that time off lifts both productivity and morale, and according to Indeed, job postings offering “unlimited vacation time” have increased 178% since 2015.
But all of these strategies have pitfalls to avoid in order to maximize their return on investment and have a lasting, positive impact on employee productivity.
Avoid Common Pitfalls
Traditional “time management” training isn’t keeping up with the demands of the modern workplace, including an excessive number of communication channels, omnipresent technology, and “always-on” expectations. While working from home is attractive to employees, they also tend to put in more hours, increasing stress and the risk of burnout.
The good news is that updated training to meet the demands of the “attention age” can address all three of the potential problems above. The concept of time management itself is holding us back, because it implies both that our productivity challenges result from a lack of time, and that we have some control over time.
When in fact, today’s high-tech, fast-paced, always-on world means that our problem really isn’t time—it’s distraction. And the antidote to distraction is our ability to manage our attention, which we can control.
Time Management vs. Attention Management
Employers need to update their professional development plans from traditional time management training to modern productivity training based in attention management. When you teach employees how to manage their attention, they will be able to tame their distractions and apply their brainpower in a more meaningful way, so they can better use the specific combination of skills and abilities you hired them for in the first place!
Employees with strong attention management skills get more work done, at higher quality, because they can give their full attention to tasks. They’re no longer at the mercy of every incoming distraction. And when needed, they can also consciously direct their attention away from work so that they can rest and rejuvenate. That’s essential for their long-term productivity.
Comprehensive workflow management training based in attention management can benefit any knowledge worker. Learning these tactics can be especially beneficial for employees who are navigating telecommuting, unlimited vacation time or both. More relevant attention management-based productivity training for employees has the following benefits.
It emphasizes workflow management
A common source of anxiety for knowledge workers is never having the full picture of everything they need to accomplish. They tend to list their responsibilities in various places, from their calendars, to their email inboxes, to some random sticky notes on their desk. As a result, they spend a lot of mental energy switching their attention to the task that just jumped into their mind, and obsessing about whether they’re overlooking anything they should be doing. This means part of their mind stays on work during evenings, weekends and even while on vacation.
For telecommuters, scattershot list-making means mentally juggling all of their work and personal to-dos, since the line between “business” and “personal” is blurred. Updated productivity training can address these issues by teaching employees how to implement a personal workflow management system.
Such a system helps your team members store, organize, prioritize, and effectively act on everything they need or want to do, from that email that just came in to long-term goals. With an effective system, employees have more peace of mind and free up their brainpower to thoughtfully apply it to their most important work.
It teaches efficient communication policies
Many knowledge workers feel that they can never escape from their email inboxes. They check for new messages at all hours and even on vacation. This problem is pervasive. But it’s often an even bigger issue for employees who work from home or who have “unlimited” vacation.
To show that they’re not abusing their flexibility, employees take extra pains to be constantly responsive — which ends up robbing them of the downtime offered by flextime and unlimited vacation. So much for better work-life balance! Productivity training that includes attention management empowers workers to take back control over their communication channels and guides leaders to implement more effective communication policies. This means communication becomes much less distracting.
It supports taking rest seriously
Modern productivity training does not mean teaching employees how to crank out work faster and faster. Attention management educates your team members that being productive in competitive knowledge work absolutely requires periods of downtime, in order to maximize their creativity, insight, and learning.
Yes, the technology that enables them to telecommute also means that they could squeeze out a little more work after the kids are in bed. But they need to be able to identify when this is necessary, and when the more productive thing to do is actually to get some extra sleep, or do other things that will spark new ideas.
The same is true for vacation. An ambitious or especially conscientious employee’s first instinct is probably to check in repeatedly while they’re off. More relevant productivity training, however, teaches the team and their leaders that this is not an effective behavior for sustained, long-term productivity. Studies show that if your organization values employees who intentionally take breaks, you’ll cultivate star performers and a culture that attracts and keeps the best and the brightest.
Think about it this way: productivity requires efficiency, and efficiency means making the best use of the resources available. But the most important resources are not time, money, or even attention. Our most important resources are our bodies and our minds. So any pursuit of productivity that comes at the expense of physical or emotional well-being is destined to fail.
Challenges to our productivity are only increasing. And the future will likely bring more disruptions in the way we’ve traditionally worked. When you seek out updated productivity solutions based in attention management rather than traditional time management, you equip your staff with the strategies and tools required to face the current and future changes in the modern work environment.