Productivity Is About the System, Not Just People

Diana Nădejde

8 minutes read

Productivity Is About the System, Not Just People

Managers frequently look for different methods to improve employee productivity (including their own). However, most of the time, this concern does not go beyond the training offered by the HR manager. Working in complex organizations involves establishing human relationships, and sometimes they make the difference when it comes to productivity, which, in the context of remote work, has raised many questions.

For example, you can be a real “ninja”, juggling loads of emails, but with the explosion of incoming messages, on Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack, and countless other communication channels, you will never be fast enough to cope with all communications and tasks at the same time.

Of course, holding the people responsible accountable is useful to some extent, but the most effective antidote against low productivity must be implemented at the system level, and not individually.

If you are an employer, the following tips may be useful to you:

1. Establish a hierarchy

Most companies have set up a functioning system with a clear sequence of “escalation” for all the complications that arise. The first level, employees with an execution role, the next, consisting of team leaders, and finally managers, directors, vice-presidents, and the executive team. Thus, the problems are approached starting with the lowest step.

If a decision cannot be made, the problem is practically “elevated” to the next level. This system improves the connection between leadership and front lines, accelerating decision making and, perhaps most importantly, improves productivity since an employee shouldn’t send dozens of messages chaotically whenever he has a question, which is especially useful when it comes to remote work, when the interaction is exclusively carried out online.

2. Make your work “visible”

In the classic version, the office, most of the workload is invisible, buried in many folders on the computer or in the minds of employees. As a result, it is difficult to know what part of the project each person is working on or if they are overloaded and cannot take on other tasks.

Management software such as Trello, Asana, Airtable, Zenkit, etc., in which each task is represented by a card that specifies who manages it (and its condition) allows a more balanced distribution of work. It also eliminates “verification” messages, as well as the need to cover this topic in meetings.

On the other hand, similarly, establishing “downtime” is equally useful. According to an analysis conducted at Harvard Business School, the implementation of “predictable free time” (for example, afternoons or evenings completely disconnected from any activity related to the job) led to increased productivity and ensuring a balance between private and professional life. In this case, “predictability” has the same purpose as “visibility”, allowing employees to see what colleagues are doing and act accordingly.

3. Set a code for the alarm signal

If you’ve watched Batman, you definitely remember that when there were disagreements, the police would call the superhero, using the image of a bat projected in the night sky. Thus, “the bat signal” was associated with times of crisis – for example, when the Joker was free and terrorized Gotham City.

Unfortunately, most organizations do not have a similar way of indicating when a problem turns into a real emergency.

Without an agreement on what communication channel is used in such a situation, employees are required to check all instant messaging platforms to ensure that “nothing escapes through the cracks.”

This is harmful to productivity. Companies can simplify this if they establish distinct channels for urgent issues from the start and… not so urgent ones. Of course, the protocol itself is also important, but a well-established system is quite essential.

4. Strike a balance between responsibility and authority

The classic scenario: employees are responsible for tasks, but are not given the authority to make certain decisions. This practice leads to frustration, stress, and overwork.

The rule is simple: if an employee is responsible for an outcome, he should have the authority to make the appropriate decisions, without being forced into an endless string of attempts to convince that it was necessary to do so.

The W.L. Gore & Associates company is a great example of an organization that has implemented this idea. The firm, estimated at $3 billion, largely distributes leadership responsibility throughout the organization, allowing employees to make their own decisions “above the waterline” (i.e., low-risk), only requiring approvals for “afloat” (high-risk) decisions. Gore has spent decades developing and refining culture, systems, and processes to support the organizational structure.

Improving productivity at individual level is a “safe” practice that can generate the desired results. However, unless employees work independently outside of an organization in order to have a real impact on performance, there needs to be change at the system level.

The question, however, remains: should productivity growth be addressed at the individual or global level?

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Written by Diana Nădejde


Originally a legal consultant, but more of a communication person, passionate about writing, digitalization, social media, history and philosophy. At the same time, I don’t think there is a problem that can’t be solved with a good book or a series.

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