Why people are working harder than ever and accomplishing less

Are you busy? I bet you are. Everyone is busy. Frantic, even. Putting fires out, chasing targets that are not only lofty but borderline impossible, and all with less resource and budget. Such is life in the business world these days, and it’s a new world we are well used to by now.

But doesn’t it seem odd that you can often have a team of people working long hours, with minimal breaks, and still you don’t seem to be getting any closer to meeting your objectives?

It could be that the targets are  too ambitious and need to be reviewed, but before making this case to your superiors (which can be akin to admitting defeat) it pays to apply a little due diligence to your situation and understand why, with all the people and all the hours being worked, things are still being missed. You are treading water, and that’s not going to be a situation that goes unnoticed for too long. Best to get on the front foot so you have a clear idea of the cause(s) before you start implementing solutions (or have solutions thrust upon you by the powers that be!).

So why does this happen? Here are some things to look at to uncover what’s really going on in your team.

1. Is everyone clear? I cannot stress enough how important clarity is in business. Clarity on what you’re trying to achieve, and what success looks like. Don’t be afraid to get crystal clear on what is expected of your team, and put some hard numbers behind deliverables where possible. The more exact you are the less wiggle room there is when objectives are not met.

Do you, as a manager know what is expected of your team? Do you understand the drivers  of business performance and the issues that need to be addressed? If the answer isn’t a resounding yes, then you have some work to do, as if management don’t have clarity around expectations and priorities, this sense of self-created ambiguity will filter through your business which is not good for morale. If people don’t know what to prioritise they will be spending time working on those time-sucking, low value ‘tasks’ that can certainly add up to a lot of time spent achieving very little.

2. Do you creep or do you hold? It’s very frustrating when you get the all-important clarity on objectives upfront from your stakeholders, work hard and diligently on achieving what has been agreed upon, only the have the goal posts shift. And shift again. This could be because your stakeholders weren’t really sold on the objectives to begin with – maybe they didn’t fully understand, or maybe things have changed in their world and this is having an impact on the scope.

Whatever the reason, commencing and continuing work on something that is continuously changing means time and energy is being spent on work that isn’t achieving much. I suppose the exception to this is where you’re being paid by the hour, like in an agency or consulting situation, however even then working hard and never achieving a result is pretty soul destroying to anyone who takes pride in their work.

If you realise scope is creeping for your projects, up your communication. If something changes, get the team together and let them know what is going on and that there may be a scope change. Decide if it’s worthwhile carrying on when things are uncertain.

Don’t have your team keep working towards something when you know game-changing turbulence is coming.  This wastes their time and doesn’t show them that you particularly value their time.

Sometimes things change and you have no control over this. It happens, and that’s the way of business. If this is the situation ensure your team know why the change is happening, and re-visit your objectives, ensure everyone understands the new expectations and timelines, as well as what has changed and (where possible) the reason for the change.

3. Do you have the right technology? Having smart and intuitive systems in place isn’t a nice-to- have, it’s critical to maintaining a competitive edge. It doesn’t matter what industry you work in, if your staff are labouring over systems that are clunky, timing consuming and involve inputting from multiple sources (one at a time) and reporting from various places (separably)- there is time right there being wasted (and likely quite a lot of it).

Take call centres. The call centre agents are the frontline of customer service and they need a strong system to support them if they are to offer these customers a satisfactory experience.

Customer satisfaction would be up there with the most important deliverable a business can have, as happy customers keep spending money with you. A system that allows agents to have all relevant information on the customer on one screen before they answer the call allows them to have a personalised, meaningful conversation. Simple but very effective. Managers can monitor calls and offer unobtrusive tips and coaching on screen, in real-time, without having to interrupt the call  or even be in the same postcode. Reporting can be done whenever on whatever metric, not limited to end of month or end of campaign. When you’re stuck in the elevator with your boss (and it happens to us all, usually when you’re least prepared!) you can answer the right questions and show them you’re on top of things.

The right system isn’t just an enabler of performance, it’s essential in maintaining a competitive edge and providing

your staff with an easy, clear way of achieving their objectives. No one wants to spend their time flicking from screen to screen, system to system, reformatting, calculating and manually inputting. Not fun for anyone.

4. Do you have the right people? We don’t need staff who can complete tasks, we need staff who can meet objectives. This means you need to be more selective in your recruitment process so you’re hiring the people who can add more value to your business. How do you do this? Try throwing away the scripted interview questions and having a conversation to try to get to the heart of the person you’re interviewing. Is their tone of voice flat, uninterested? Red flag. Do they spark up when they describe a challenge they’ve nutted out? That’s a great sign. Use a bit of intuition and look for people who don’t rattle off answers to your questions but seem to consider each before they answer. You want people who can achieve, not people who simply turn up to work.

We’ve all heard of AI, we know that chat bots are here and can do a lot of the simple tasks traditionally done by humans. Need to record customer details? Chat bots can do that for you. Need simple, regular queries answered and information provided? Chat bots are perfect for this. They are coming to the fore in customer-facing tasks, but the rise of AI means that in the future there will be many tasks previously n your team’s to-do list that simply won’t be required of them. When you think of the right team you need to meet your business objectives, think in terms of the more challenging deliverables that cannot be completed by a robot.

Couple this with spending more time and putting more thought into your interviewing and you’ll likely have higher quality staff who can spend the hours they are at work working through the more challenging tasks which will add the value you need to see a shift in your productivity.

There’s no silver bullet to productivity. When you have a team full of people seemingly working hard and not making a dent in your targets, it’s easy to say your targets are too ambitious and your budget is not enough. But without looking at who you have in your team, the environment and culture they work in and tools with which you are expecting them to work, you may be missing some clear clues on how to improve your performance.

The good news is it’s not hard make a pretty quick difference. Be clear in your objectives. Be consistent in your scope and communicate change well. Have the right systems in place and recruit the people who can master the tasks that add the most value. You might then find that you get closer to those elusive goals, or if not can have a clear, non-defensive and honest conversation about your team’s performance when the time comes.

Joel Hill is General Manager at Noojee Contact Solutions.



Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.