Busy v Productive Employees

busy employee“Work smarter, not harder”: it’s a common cliché. And like most clichés, few people actually do it. Spend time looking around a lot of work places and you’ll soon see that busy employees often outnumber the productive employees.

Whether we’re a manager, an employee, or working for ourselves I guarantee that we’ve all had our moments where feel as though we’re on the hamster wheel trying to get stuff done, but seemingly going nowhere. However some people like looking busy. Being busy looks impressive and can give the impression that you are important – perhaps that feeling of self-importance is why people answer emails at all hours of the day, is late for social occasions and misses out on sleep?


Being busy is not the same as being productive

What many people fail to understand is that being busy is not the same as being productive. Being productive is about about getting things done. Whilst working anything more than your standard workday is a commitment to work harder, it is not necessarily smarter: time at work does not equal productivity.

This is not helped when, in some work places, working long hours and telling people about not having enough time in the day is considered a status symbol and a sign of success. Indeed many work places reward people who work all hours rather than reward performance.


How did we get here?

The culture of being busy emerged in the 1980s when employees began working more hours to try to make themselves stand out amongst the regular 9 to 5ers. It has had a resurgence over the last few years as economic uncertainty set in and employees were doing more and more in order to ensure they kept their job.


Time to make a change?

multipurpose businessmanIn the book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte, Schulte recounts a study by Florida psychologist Anders Ericcson. Ericcson wanted to understand what it took to be the best at something so he went to Berlin to examine the time logs of the most successful musicians. There he discovered that the virtuosos were those who practiced hard for no more than 90 minutes, and they took more breaks and naps than the musicians who weren’t as good.

There are only so many hours per day that you can produce world-class, creative output.

“In the breaks, that’s where the ‘aha moment’ comes,”

says Schulte.


Turning busy into productive

Busyness is not a great measure of productivity. Instead of ticking off things on your to do list, you need to think about whether you are ticking off the right things? Being productive is about knowing what matters and directing your energy into getting those things completed.

Here is a five-stage process to help you turn busy employees into productive employees:

  1. Tell them what matters: Stop and take the time to communicate with your employees, letting them know which are the most critical business and team goals. Give them a chance to reflect on what is important and to ask questions.
  2. Set objectives: Get your employees to brainstorm objectives and milestones for the goals that you’ve discussed in the step above. Contribute if necessary, but allow your employees the freedom to set the objectives as it encourages them to own the process and the result.
  3. Prioritise: This is the simplest step; just get your employees to number their objectives in order of priority. It also provides a great check to see if the objectives are relevant and vital to the overall goal: if not, then let your employees know that it is okay to postpone, delegate or abandon objectives. This is all part of effective prioritisation and knowing what matters.
  4. Get it done: Encourage your employees to ignore distractions such as emails, phone calls, etc and focus on the objectives in order of priority.
  5. Additional tasks: Every time your employees are asked to do something get them to ask themselves and the person requesting the work if it is critical to their objectives before they agree to do it.


John Sylvester

John is responsible for the motivation division of p&mm ltd and a Director on the board of the IPM. Specialising in developing, implementing and directing many large scale staff motivation, recognition and employee communications programmes.
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