Where do we go from here?

Ray Piper, Project Manager

Employees are working harder than ever during the hours they spend on the job. Most full-time employees are working between 50 and 60 hours each week and then working out in exercise facilities, to reduce accumulated stress, prior to arriving home to share what is left of their day with families. In fact, the hours worked annually rose in the USA from 1,966 to 1,883 during the years 1980 to 1997. During this same time frame, the annual hours worked in Japan declined from 2,121 to 1,889. Employees are working smarter than ever before. Over the past five years we have seen dramatic changes in the technology and tools that are available to improve employee productivity. Where these tools have been implemented, there have been mixed results but overall we are working smarter.

If all of this is true, where do we go from here? Studies in mid 1999 indicated that productivity in the USA was not increasing at the same rate as Japan and Europe. This signals a need, therefore, to increase productivity at a time when employees are working as hard and as smart as they can. This need is driven by the importance of being able to compete with overseas competition, but internal competition is still rife and is also fierce.

If employees are working as hard as they can and as smart as they are able, how can we become more productive and move ahead of the competition? We may need to make creative shifts to enable the workforce to produce more to be increasingly competitive. Paradigms will have to change, and quickly.

Source Data

In an effort to collect the opinions of employees from as many sources as possible, I first decided to approach the members of the Houston Chapter of PMI and survey them. The members have a wide range of experience, age and industry. I believed this would be a good broad base from which to start. Feeling anxious while waiting for the questionnaires to roll in, I found two additional sources of similar surveys and decided to use those in conjunction with my own survey. My three sources were:

1. A questionnaire sent out to 1,000 employees in the Houston area. These employees were from many different industries and the survey was facilitated through the Houston Chapter of PMI during the early part of 2000.

2. A PC Computing survey distributed on the Internet in 1999.

3. A Management Today survey published in the U.K. in 1999.

Summary of Findings

Houston Questionnaire (Done with the Participation of the Houston Chapter of PMI)

Responses were varied and similar responses were often found in multiple categories. I selected the two highest scoring answers to the initial questions, and I selected the three highest scoring answers in the last two categories. An overall observation, although you will not see it reflected clearly in the following, due to brevity, was that the need for training and recognition were widespread. Another result was confirmation that employees feel they are working as hard and smart as they are able, so it is not necessarily the employees themselves who are limiting increases in productivity.

Highest in relation to improving productivity:

1. Implementation of user-friendly software tools—25%

2. Increase structured training—20%

Highest in relation to improving quality of output:

1. Improve rewards and job security—30%

2. Optimize work processes—15%

Highest in regard to reducing project schedule durations:

1. Get buy-in from all parties on decision-making—35%

2. Improve training—20%

Highest regarding project cost reduction:

1. Improve communication between groups—20%

2. Reduce middle management—20%

These questions were followed by two questions related to morale and employee satisfaction.

What has the most adverse impact on employee morale?

1. Little or no job security—15%

2. Lack of employee recognition—12%

3. Poor leadership/management—10%

What solutions have you found to improve employee satisfaction?

1. Rewarding high performers—25%

2. Recognizing employees verbally—25%

3. Implementing flexible working hours—10%

PC Computing Survey

1. Over 50% of the white-collar workers surveyed reported that they don't have the technical skills they need to do their jobs. They get shortchanged in training. Managers who agonize over Power Point slides waste time that could be spent making sales calls. Smart employees eventually develop the skills they need— through trial and grope. But at what cost? When PC Computing Business Labs put workers who relied on Microsoft Excel through an Excel training course, their productivity jumped as much as 37%. On average, this frees up about 200 hours per employee each year—or more than $5,000 a head.

2. Most of the employees in the survey said they would attend training classes after hours. As one respondent reported, “The training I‘ve done on my own time has more than doubled my work capacity.” Training used to be out of reach for most small businesses. But thanks to computer-based classes, you can train employees for as little as $50 per class. Since it's on the computer, training can take place during downtime—or after hours.

3. Almost 70% of small businesses still don't have a network in place, and few have plans to do so in the coming year. In the survey, networks and Intranets were the number one employee-requested technology investment. It's no wonder. Intranets invite collaboration in ways undreamed of in the days of simple file sharing. They reorganize work and bring projects a magnitude of efficiency unavailable to workers dependent on e-mail alone. For example, most offices use Microsoft Word to create memos, reports, and proposals, which are shared by passing out printed copies or by e-mailing electronic versions. In their tests, business people were 53% more productive using Office 2000‘s Internet collaboration features than they were with simple networked versions of Office 97.

Management Today survey (Members publication from the Institute of Management, U.K.)

And finally a Business Week survey in 1998 highlighted that when asked the question:“Are pressures on working families getting better or worse?” Sixty-four percent answered yes. When asked if employers should do more, a resounding 90% responded with a yes, and 72% indicated that they thought the government should do more to help working families. These questions were asked of men and women and both sets of answers were within 3% with the women scoring slightly higher than the men.

Commentary on Findings

In reviewing the above-mentioned data, I became aware of the fact that the issues I was trying to address are more complex than I imagined. They are complex for two main reasons: people react so differently to change and because change is happening so quickly. However, in order to stay productive and competitive in this chaos, managers and supervisors are going to have to be more creative, and at a faster pace than ever, to deal with these wide-ranging complex issues. From a project manager's perspective, we have to take the responsibility to deal with these issues on our projects because we are not likely to get help from elsewhere. Also, it is our project that is going to be impacted by the concerns listed above. If our project is a virtual project, whereby all or most of our team members are remotely located, these problems are going to be more severe and will require extraordinary measure to prevent them adversely impacting success.

We must look at new creative ways of improving how business is being done. Employees are using just a fraction of the technology that is available to them but with heavy workloads they are unable to find adequate time for training. Many homes now have two wage earners resulting in greater problems related to rearing the family. Companies have done much in the past to make child care available, but is it enough? Do companies need to be more open to flexible time schedules and working from home? Our mindset outside of work is still in the agricultural and manufacturing era. Many stores and facilities such as post offices are only open from 9:00 until 5:00 making it impossible for employees to access them without taking time out from the office. Some of these issues may well go away by judicious use of the Internet. However, most companies that allow employees Internet access have very necessarily stringent firewalls that prevent access to some of the web sites. In so doing they limit access to sites that offer grocery and stamp purchasing capabilities, online training and research, of all which could alleviate some of these domestic problems and make employees happier in the office. There are many questions related to how much time employers should allow their employees to access the Internet during office hours or lunch breaks. How much screen time is injurious to our health, either eyes or hands? There are many issues that cannot be resolved without major paradigm shifts in our own minds as well as in the culture of our companies. These issues need to be addressed. If ignored the cost of procrastination will be prohibitive as jobs and market share are lost to more efficient companies.

The ROC

I have tried to put the issues, as I see them, into three categories under the acronym of ROC: responsibility, organization and community.

Responsibility—Don't Get Angry, Get to Work

We are all angry at someone. Angry at our employees who don't perform—angry at our boss who is incompetent—angry at the system that doesn't work. You cannot be angry and be in control. You are the one who has to be responsible for change, to change all those things within your power that are making you angry. We have to take responsibility to make our work places happier. If we as managers and leaders are happy it will have a positive effect on our employees and the result will be a much-improved place to work with escalating productivity and more creativity to improve further.

Managers and supervisors must be more responsible for:

• Their employee's welfare.

• Communication—individuals and departments don't communicate or don't do it effectively. One reason is the inherent lack of trust between management and employees. It is your responsibility to improve communications.

• Department workload—it must be shared equitably.

• Delegating but don't ask, “Do you understand?” You may get a yes response said in fear or confusion. Ask, “How do you think you will proceed with this?” This will give clarification that they understand the task and give them confidence when you ask their opinion.

• Training opportunities—employees must be encouraged to seek self-improvement to be the best they can. Lack of training causes procrastination due to employees being overwhelmed with their tasks. This causes paralysis by fear of failure.

• Employees understanding that there are no entitlements—they get what they work for.

• Family restrictions and how they impact productivity. Some employees have special situations that require them to work part time or non-standard hours. Use this to your advantage by allowing them to work flexible hours if possible. You will save money on recruiting and training and earn loyalty. It is important to manage the interface if they are working in teams.

• Their own knowledge base—they must keep their own skills up to date. We moved from the agricultural to industrial and now we are entrenched in the knowledge era. To be a viable commodity or to be sought after as skilled employees, we must have recent knowledge. In this new age experience may be detrimental to progress if the experience is not current.

• In the knowledge-based economy, workers will be valued for their ability to create, judge, imagine and build relationships (Geoffrey Calvin, Fortune Magazine).

• Employees and give them clearly defined and agreed upon expectations. Give them the tools and the training, get out of their way and reward their success. Simple memory upgrades can pay for themselves within one to five days and going with DSL can improve productivity by up to 90% with a bottom line savings of $20,000 per employee. Some employees are so frustrated with their tools that they have indicated their willingness to invest in their own technology.

You are a leader. You cannot lead by simply responding to email. You have to be seen out there showing the team the way, removing obstacles and setting new goals. Being accountable for one's own career and sharing leadership at all levels are perceived as today's most commonly desired employee competencies.

Many of these issues are more difficult to deal with in the evolving “virtual project” world (projects executed by team members spread over various locations). Training, mentoring and coaching are more complex to implement. Each project manager has the same responsibilities in the virtual project but may never physically meet all of the team members. This puts an added burden and involves a more complex approach to keeping the team informed and cohesive.

Organization—If You Don't Know the Way, How Should They

When it comes to work processes many managers think they can “wing it”: others think they know it all and have it working just fine. However, many fail to understand the importance of established work processes and how they can be effective in improving productivity. Work processes are the key to organizing the work, communicating the path forward and highlighting responsibilities for the work to be done.

• Managing the work through process management must show substantial results and not be there for the integrity of the process. Processes must be kept evergreen to be effective.

• Change can happen only if we make it happen. If we must change by improving our work processes, just to keep pace, what must we do to be ahead of the game?

• We must embrace change and adopt a comprehensive change process to be able to implement improvement changes with negligible impact on the current work process.

• Change is going to be substantial—rapid implementation is essential. However, we must remain cognoscente that change causes employees to become confused and less focused and crises cause employees to become reactive instead of productive. This is a delicate moment to manage.

• Help employees succeed by motivating themselves within a structured environment. No rules still means anarchy. Enabling team members in the virtual project is not a simple process but is essential because some team members may be influenced more by local needs and pressures than those from a distance.

• Flatter organizations are required with a great deal of lateral movement and pay based on results.

• Make the rules clear and known by all. Reprimand and reward should be expedient.

• Ensure work processes have been developed and maintained and insure adequate training is available on work process implementation.

Large companies can get bogged down with bureaucracy that negatively affects their reflexes and their ability to update software in a timely manner. If upgrading systems takes more than two years to implement and another three months to train an advantage may have been lost because the software is probably already out of date. If employees cannot get the tools and training to do their work and assistance is seen to be reluctant, guess what happens? Lunch times get longer, downtime increases and enthusiasm declines. This decline is contagious and can rapidly turn into resentment of the organization and will break down teamwork.

Community—Love Thy Neighbor But Love Your Job Too

If you are not happy with your job, you will not be happy at home and you will not be able to develop a creative environment essential for a productive workforce and a competitive company. Develop a community where training of existing and new tools is readily available to all. Ensure all employees are encouraged and recognized regularly for high performance. Above all, deal with poor performers before they impact their colleagues.

• Remote teams bring more complexity to managing and executing projects but are going to be more prominent in the future. Train employees in the art of team dynamics.

• Team dynamics must be institutionalized through the corporation to have its greatest impact.

• Mentoring programs to bring new team members on board more rapidly can have significant impact in reducing the learning curve—use all of the soft skills. Train all personnel in the soft skills and ensure they are implemented.

• Reward with praise and recognition when success is achieved.

• Be sure to set clearly understood measurable goals and reward overachievers. Set short-term goals so employees can reach them on a regular basis and can feel a sense of accomplishment.

• Install a rewards program for successful implementation and application.

• Recognize teams as well as individuals. When showing appreciation by complementing individual employees:

• Give them privately.

• Maintain eye contact to project sincerity.

• Be specific to highlight special skills or success.

• Be direct: “I enjoyed your presentation ...”

• Reinforce in writing.

• Send a letter of appreciation but also include a folder entitled, “Success File.” Tell employees to keep the folder to store future letters (The Idiots Guide to managing people).

• Rewards should not always be cash. For example, in congested cities, rail passes may be a great way to reward employees.

• Ask employees how you can help them and involve employees in the decision-making. They may have more insight to the problem than their supervisors. This is especially valid when we are involved in virtual projects. Cultures vary at different locations within large companies, and the culture may have a very large impact on how employees react and execute their work. Working on projects with some employees who are in overseas locations add even more complexities that cannot be ignored but need to be addressed accordingly.

• Suggestion boxes are not effective. Employees are busy and will not fill out the paperwork. Sit with them and they will know you care and are genuinely interested in them and their ideas.

• Listen to your employees and work with them to ensure their success.

Encourage employees to ask for additional tools and training. Discuss each situation: you may have a better solution, to help your employees succeed for you. Don't procrastinate in helping and solving their problems. If problems are not dealt with quickly productivity will drop even further because of your inaction.

Conclusion

Are you between a ROC and a hard place? Take that leap of faith and jump on the ROC. Take responsibility for your employees and enable them to be responsible for their careers and their work processes. Develop an organization with clearly defined work processes, which includes a change management system to ensure continuous improvement as new ideas and technology become available. Be aware of the community effect on your employees. Make sure communication is swift, often and effective in all things, especially where recognition is concerned.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are a competitive society, and we love competing with others. However, we also need to compete with past and some current practices to maximize our effort. We have to enable employees by changing some of the ways we execute work and acknowledge that employees need tools with appropriate training, constant appraisal and for management to get out of their way and let them get on with the job.

We need to look both internally and externally for opportunities to make creative shifts to enable the workforce to produce more if we are to maintain a competitive position. However, we cannot afford to alienate employees or dumb down our workforce. We must find ways to work with employees to secure a positive atmosphere in which to make changes. This evolution through change will have be a continuous process if it is to affect our future competitiveness. Investigation of successes in this area needs to be researched and shared.

Reference

Houston PMI Chapter survey in January 2000.

A PC Computing survey distributed on the Internet in 1999.

A Management Today survey published in the U.K. in 1999.

The Idiot's Guide to Managing People.

Geoffrey Calvin, Fortune Magazine.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA

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