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As we write this article, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. Many non-essential workers across the United States are staying at home. Those who can do so are working from home.
We live in a constantly changing world, but never has the change been as rapid and widespread as it is today. All organizations now operate in the VUCA environment – it is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. While organizations have previously been able to control their own rate of change, today they are being forced to change because of events completely out of their control.
COVID-19 has forced organizations to reassess their own capabilities. Many are now operating with a workforce that has been totally transformed from office-based to home-based. Organizations must answer questions such as:
How do you lead an organization through a volatile market?
What winning traits must your organization possess to be successful through change in a VUCA world?
Eventually we will come through this difficult period in world history. The organizations that employ strategies to maintain productivity during the COVID-19 crisis will be those that emerge strong and healthy. But I think we can all agree that the world as we know it now will be changed. Working from home is likely to become the new normal for many.
In the current and future environment, one of the biggest challenges facing organizations and their people is that of communication. In this article, we discuss the effect of poor communication on productivity, and the communication challenges that your organization faces to positively affect productivity – both now and in the future.
Productivity is most easily understood as the output that a person creates for each hour of their time. For example, if one baker makes 30 cookies an hour and another makes 60 cookies an hour, the second baker is twice as productive.
Higher productivity translates into cost reduction and higher revenues. If you employ only the baker who can make 30 cookies an hour, your sales are limited to only 30 cookies. To sell double the amount, you would have to employ two bakers. Or, you could hire one baker who makes 60 cookies an hour – your revenue doubles while the cost of labor remains unchanged.
The two main factors that determine productivity are physical capital and human capital:
Physical capital is the tools that your people work with. This might include equipment and machinery, but also includes internal and external infrastructure. A driver delivering goods to customers located on poor roads will deliver less than a driver delivering to customers located along highways. If it is necessary for paperwork to be signed for orders to be completed, productivity is reliant on the time it takes to get the paperwork signed. If the signatory is located on the 20th floor while the clerk works on the 3rd floor, this time is determined by the existence of an elevator.
When considering physical capital, it is important to understand that both the quantity and quality of physical capital affects production.
Human capital is the ability of the average employee to produce services or goods. This depends upon education, experience and expertise. The more able your employees are, the more productive they will become. While adding quantity may help you produce more, it does not help you become more productive. In terms of human capital, it is very much quality that counts.
Undoubtedly, technology has improved productivity. Better machines in factories allow fewer people to produce more. Email has slashed the time it takes for customers to place orders, and for office workers to communicate with each other.
Using research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Erik Rauch determined that technology had helped the average American worker’s productivity to increase by 400% between 1950 and 2000 (‘Productivity and the Workweek’). Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Yet the productivity of human capital could be much better.
When examining productivity and human capital, it becomes apparent that poor communication harms productivity. Should you provide a salesperson with a new sales tool, which connects them to the office and allows them to communicate in real time to negotiate on product specifics, colors, prices and quantities, productivity should be boosted:
However, if the salesperson doesn’t know how to operate the new tool or is unclear about the new procedures accompanying it, the new tool won’t be used, and productivity won’t budge.
Often, when new processes and policies are put in place, it is communicated via a meeting. Yet meetings are one of the biggest timewasters in the American employee’s existence. In its 2019 State of Meetings report – which examined 19 million meetings around the world – Doodle found that:
As for the financial impact of meetings in the United States, Doodle estimate it to be almost $400 billion each year.
Effective communication influences the behavior of your employees. Clear and concise instructions and fast delivery of messages is essential. People who understand what they should be doing do it more efficiently. That’s why flatpack furniture includes instructions.
Collaboration relies on communication between managers and employees. Poor communication translates into ineffective instructions, confusion, and the need for more meetings – which may be equally as ineffective as the last. Poor communication could lead to project delays, and errors that snowball down the line, affecting productivity and profits.
People’s motivation and ability to perform falters because of poor communication. But positive communication aids individual performance and thus boosts productivity. As you seek to improve your communication, you are likely to face the following challenges:
A lack of consistency of communication as it filters through the organizational hierarchy and between different departments causes clarity to be lost. Meaning is assumed rather than explained, leading to confusion and chaos. This can be even worse with a remote team.
Despite that people dislike meetings, communication is done best face-to-face in an open culture. Organizations that rely on technology to disseminate messages become faceless and lose authenticity, especially if the message is a tough one to deliver. When managing a remote team, organizations must find ways to maintain personal contact through cyberspace.
Especially in organization-wide communication, it is easy for your communications to be littered with jargon that not all understand. The messenger often assumes that others will understand the message. Less knowledgeable people switch off, and the message is lost. This is a very real threat when communicating via email and instant messenger – people don’t have the benefit of deciphering real meaning by observing the energy of nonverbal communication.
Especially during organizational change, the depth of focus on objectives can cause managers to ignore feedback from their people. If this should happen, distance is created between management and staff, and motivation reduces – leading to falling productivity.
For many organizations, the current period of change has been so rapid, and the situation so fluid, that change is being forced onto employees. Consequently, actions are being forced onto employees with little or no explanation. People are left confused and frustrated.
Some managers and supervisors are poor communicators. Many employees find it difficult to express their thoughts, especially to their managers. They believe that asking clarifying questions will mark them out as less effective.
These five communication challenges are among the most common that your organization will face. To overcome them, here are five actions you can take as you build a more effective communication strategy:
Communicate your message in language that can be understood by all, keeping it clear and concise. The less you say, the more is meaningful and understood. Remove complex jargon to ensure that communication is accessible to all – and ensure this policy extends to all forms of communication.
Consistency is key. It is essential that your message is delivered consistently by all, and received in ways that ensure understanding.
Ensure that your leaders and managers communicate in person whenever possible, but make certain that all face-to-face meetings are meaningful and benefit from clarity, consistency, and deliverable action points.
By really listening to your employees, you will gain a greater understanding of their abilities, their concerns, and their understanding of your communications.
Encourage your leaders and managers to communicate in an open and honest culture, encouraging the exchange of ideas, building the trust that takes teams from conflict to collaboration. Ensure that your leaders and managers know what is to be communicated, when it is to be communicated, and how it is to be communicated.
Working in the virtual world is very different to working in a normal office environment. Though the five actions above hold true for communication strategies in the virtual world, there are challenges that increase the complexity of putting these actions into practice.
In a normal office environment, the manager is on hand to ensure that people are busy and productive. This is not the case in the virtual world. Managers must trust their people more, and allow them to manage their own time.
A manager of a remote team becomes a guide – explaining what must be done and when it must be done by, but allowing team members to manage their own calendars within this. Micromanagement is impossible. Instead, the good leader will become a coach and help their people become problem solvers while maintaining an open line of communication for when their input is required.
Technology such as online project management tools enables the team to be open, tasks to be managed, and progress to be monitored in an environment of collaboration through cyberspace.
When a team is suddenly transformed into a virtual team, the amount of interaction between them becomes apparent. While people may say that they would prefer their managers and supervisors not to be in the office, when they suddenly aren’t (as is the case in remote teams) the void is palpable. Even the morning greeting is missed.
Good managers of remote teams ensure that they check in with their people regularly – not simply about work (though understanding people’s issues and offering encouragement and resource are important), but also simply to touch base and ask how the family is and how the employee is. Social isolation is a real issue exacerbated by working from home – especially if it has been forced upon people, as it has been because of COVID-19.
The tools used by remote teams to manage their workflow and maintain productivity are often inhuman – email, instant messenger, WhatsApp, etc. Encourage the use of video calls to keep the personal aspect of communication.
Tools such as Skype and Zoom should be used for one-to-ones and team meetings. In team meetings, insist on some form of call protocol. It can be difficult to distinguish between people’s voices and background noise. Create a meeting protocol to avoid ambiguity and lost voices, and ensure that the team follow it.
The water cooler is a focal point in many traditional offices. Time to take a five-minute break from work and chat to a colleague. Set up a virtual water cooler where your remote people can meet and chat about things other than work. Not only do such breaks help to recharge the brain, they also provide essential social contact.
The opportunities to get your team together for a social event will be very rare. During the COVID-19 lockdown, they will be non-existent. But this doesn’t mean they can’t happen. You must simply be a little more creative. A once-a-month virtual lunch will give the team a chance to ‘sit and eat together’. Remember, this is a social event, not a time to discuss work issues.
When working from home, it is easy for an employee to become so absorbed in work that they overwork. They sit at their desk until they have finished, and then want to do more. This is counterproductive, because eventually (and probably soon) the employee will suffer from burnout.
Those small distractions that are often so annoying at work, such as colleagues visiting your desk, serve as mini breaks. Insist that people take mini breaks while working from home. They help to prevent burnout.
When your managers and leaders communicate effectively, your employees will become more effective and productive. Thus, it is essential that you develop your organization’s communication ability. This is true in both the physical and virtual workplace.
While the strategies for maintaining productivity and morale through effective communication during the COVID-19 crisis remain broadly the same as when managing an office-based team, the remote nature of your employees will dictate that innovative tactics be used. Get this right, and you will benefit from not only maintaining productivity, but improving it.
Contact us today and discover how we could help your leaders and managers improve their communication practices and strategies, and how this can feed through to improving employee productivity at all levels and in all working environments.
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