Disrupting the Workplace: How to Work Smarter, Not Harder

Employee Engagement
Here’s how business leaders can play a key role in helping their employees work productively without burning out.

Time is money, but does working long hours necessarily pay off? Studies indicate no. A significant body of research suggests that overworking is not beneficial, in fact it is detrimental to employees and the companies they work for. Overwork and the resulting stress has been tied to impaired health, which leads to high turnover, absenteeism, and rising health insurance costs, not to mention low quality work.  At the same time, there are a number of psychological and economic factors that drive people to put in long hours at the office. Here, we outline what it takes for leaders and employees to work more efficiently without sacrificing quality of life or output.

Be Flexible but set Boundaries
The Internet has transformed the nature of work, allowing employees to work from virtual offices at any time. However, that flexibility includes a downside, in that workers are always a tap away from the burdens of the office. Fuze, a communications solutions provider, surveyed more than 1,000 U.S.-based employees from various firms and found that 25 percent of the respondents handle work-related correspondence on their mobile devices within an hour of going to bed and 82 percent have responded to work-related emails while on vacation.

The feeling of constantly being “on call” can quickly lead to employee burnout, notes Eric Hanson, vice president of product marketing at Fuze. “I’ve seen it happen at previous jobs and it’s something that many people can relate to,” he says. And while leaders understand the value of creating flexible work schedules, it’s important to also communicate to employees the hours they’re expected to work.

“Establishing boundaries is critical,” Hanson says. “Respecting the fact that people have other responsibilities outside of work or simply need to log off maximizes productivity and the mental well-being of your employees.”

Value Results, Not Time Spent Clocking in
Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, analyzed more than 100 job interviews, performance evaluations, and turnover data from a consulting firm and came to the conclusion that managers could not tell whether employees actually worked 80 hours a week or just pretended to. Additionally, Reid was not able to find any evidence that the employees who worked less than 80 hours accomplished less, or that the overworking employees accomplished more. What Reid did find was that employees, particularly men, operated in a mode that she described as “passing” e.g., tweaking their schedules so that they only worked with local clients and shared limited information of their whereabouts to maintain the appearance of continuously working without actually doing so.

Such behavior is not a good strategy, Reid writes in Harvard Business Review, because “not only does it involve an element of deception between colleagues, bosses, and subordinates, it also perpetuates the myth that those who are successful are also all wholly devoted to work.” At the same time, convincing organizational leaders to alter their expectations may be difficult. Reid writes that the firm asked how women might be taught to “pass” as well. However, the evidence is clear: Working long hours is not necessary for high quality work.

Don’t Reinforce Ineffective Behavior
Employees look to their managers and other senior leaders for guidance on what is expected of them at work. As such, leaders should be mindful of the messages that they project, advises Mercedes De Luca, chief operating officer at Basecamp, which offers project management tools.

“It’s important to thank employees for working hard, such as putting in extra hours to complete an urgent project, but be careful that you’re not reinforcing the expectation that employees should always be working overtime,” De Luca says. “Or you might be comfortable working late, but make it clear to your team that they won’t be penalized for not working the same hours as you.”

Communicate Frequently with Employees
The manager-employee relationship is key to helping employees stay engaged without getting burnt out, maintains Kris Duggan, CEO of BetterWorks, a platform for feedback and goal setting for enterprise businesses. Even experienced employees can benefit from managers who provide helpful feedback and are “in sync with the employee’s continuum of work,” Duggan says.

According to Duggan, one way to improve the manager-employee relationship is using objective key results (OKRs), a popular technique for setting and communicating goals and results in organizations. Here’s how it works: The first step is to create an Objective, followed by a number of quantifiable "Key Results" to determine whether the objective was met. Google is one of many companies that uses OKRs. In a presentation, Rick Klau, a Google Ventures partner, explains that the company measures the results on a quarterly basis. Google uses a 0 to 1 scale and the goal is to get a 0.6 or 0.7 on the first try, rather than a 1, which would suggest that the goal was too easy.

OKRs are a simple way to create structure for individuals and it’s credited with helping Google attract employees and help them align their goals, Duggan notes. “When managers have a format for helping employees set and manage goals and results, it becomes easier to provide real-time feedback and coaching,” he says. “Regularly syncing on goals keeps everyone aligned, while preventing the burnout that might happen when employees are overworked.”

Say No to Conventional Brainstorming Sessions
The concept of brainstorming makes sense: Giving a group of people the freedom to contribute ideas should yield a slew of unique and helpful answers. However, studies have shown that brainstorming may be a great team-building activity, but it often fails to generate effective ideas. Part of the reason is that the majority of the ideas tend to come from the extroverted members of the group and exclude the potential contributions of the more introverted thinkers. And when teammates do participate, only one person can speak at a time, while everyone else waits passively.

Instead of having the group blurt out ideas, De Luca proposes an alternative approach in which the leader explains the issue or problem that needs to be solved and the available resources before letting the team work independently to write down ideas for addressing the issue. “The team can still meet face-to-face, but this way everyone has already had time to give the issue some thought and are prepared with answers,” De Luca explains.

Set Clear Priorities
According to a Gallup study of 2.2 million employees, only about half strongly agreed that they know what is expected of them at work. In other words, it’s difficult for employees to work effectively if they’re unclear on their goals. “Without clear leadership, it’s easy to get distracted with a lot of ‘nice-to-have’ projects that don’t actually impact the bottom line,” De Luca notes. In addition to helping employees define their goals, a potential solution is to limit the amount of time dedicated to each project. “One of the things that helps us at Basecamp is to work in small six-week cycles or the average time it takes to see a project through,” De Luca says. “That way, if another project comes up, you can tee it up without scrambling to work on several things at once.” 

Simply put, overworking is a story of diminishing returns: There comes a point where people who work long hours or juggle too many projects become less productive. The challenge is for employers and employees to acknowledge that quality output is more important than working overtime.