As a manager or leader, it’s one of your key responsibilities to help your team consistently do their best work. Whether this means guiding them to prioritize their work, helping them optimize their everyday schedule, or (maybe ironically) making sure you’re not the hindrance anywhere. It’s easy to forget that anything you ask your team to do in the name of productivity - whether it is to use a new tool, take on that “urgent” last-minute task, or attend tens of meetings every week to keep everyone up to speed - takes time. We all tend to assume that we have more time than we do. So, while employee time management might not be the highest on your list of management priorities, naturally it crosses over from a personal issue to a business one. And that’s when it’s up to you to start looking for solutions.
Let’s look at a few ways to recognize if your employees are struggling with their time management and how you can help them with it.
Getting employee time management right
1. Set clear expectations and agendas
When you dig into the kinds of employee time management issues most organizations face, it becomes obvious that they’re not always self-inflicted.
While writing his book, Master The Moment, Pat Burns interviewed employees at 50 organizations and discovered that many of the time management issues employees face can be traced back to poor leadership, including:
- Not knowing what tasks to prioritize
- Having trouble saying no even when their workload is full and brimming
- Feeling swamped with too many tasks
- Procrastinating or not finishing what they start because timelines aren’t set clearly
- Always being in a reactive mode due to an unclear strategy and plan
If you scan through this list, you’ll see that most employee time management issues are really communication issues. Team members are unaware of what tasks they should be working on, how they should be spending their time wisely, or what they can and can’t say ‘no’ to.
There are a few ways you can help them here:
First, you need to shift your traditional approach to ‘yes’ people. Most companies celebrate the people who ‘just get the stuff done somehow.’ You think they’re the hard workers or that they’ve got mettle. In reality, they’re most likely overworked, stressed, and on the road to burnout.
Instead of celebrating these martyrs, look for the signs that they’re hitting a wall:
- Suddenly missing deadlines
- Being unsure of deliverables during meetings (or not speaking up at all)
- Not performing how they normally do
- Attending a lot of meetings or always being on calls
According to Bruce Tulgan, author of Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, all it takes to avoid these employee time management issues is to observe and then plan acccordingly. Do they need help from you? Are they clear on what the deliverables are? Do they need to change the scope of their projects?
Give them the freedom to tell you where your expectations don’t match their reality. This isn’t a failure on anyone’s part. Rather, it’s a way to continue the conversation around how they can do their best work.
2. Help employees discover what is consuming their time
Converse with your team and you’d know that most people think they have 7–8 hours a day to do their core work. Unfortunately, according to research, the majority of our working day goes to other tasks like email, IM, meetings, and admin.
Knowing this is the case, it can be undeniably, a valuable tool to be able to show your team where their time is going every day. One way to do this efficiently is with what’s called a time audit.
This will involve your team writing down their intentions and beliefs about how they usually spend their time at work and then actually tracking how they work. In most cases, the difference between intentions and actions will be staggering.
Worse, it’s easy (and understandable) for employees to feel under-the-gun when asked to track their time at work. As you go into it, be confident of how this is an exercise to help them and won’t affect their position at all.
Once you’ve collected enough data, sit down with each team member and ask a few important questions:
- How well is your time aligned with the work and priorities that matter most to you?
- What gets in the way of spending time working on your priorities?
- What tasks were more time consuming than you thought they would?
- Which ones took less time than you anticipated?
- How well are you able to use small pockets of time? Do you work better when you have long periods of distraction-free time to focus on tasks?
This conversation should uncover a few red flags. Might be the case where they simply have too much on their plate and need to delegate. Or maybe they’re unable to spend time on their most meaningful work due to constant interruptions or meetings, and need to block out some focused, ‘heads down’ time each day.
Think of it like working out or dieting. First, you identify where your actions are going against your goals, and then you adjust and work towards it.
3. Teach your team to plan their day better
No matter how quickly you think you will be able to finish a task, it’s going to take you longer than you think.
Psychologists call this the Planning fallacy—when you make a plan for how long a task or project will take (which is usually a best-case scenario), and then assume the outcome will follow your plans, even when you know better.
I’m sure you’ve fallen into this trap yourself. However, it’s even worse for your team members who have the added pressure to not fail or disappoint you.
While a time audit will help your team understand what gets in the way during the workday, you will also need to help them spend what time they do have more wisely.
Start by being more active in the planning process and breaking larger projects into smaller and deliverable chunks. As a leader, you have insight into certain things they don’t. Such as:
- Have they thought about what they’ll need from other teams or departments or how long relevant research or gathering resources will take?
- Are they being realistic about how long will it take to achieve a milestone?
- Can they be held accountable for this timeline?
Yes, this is a bigger time commitment for you than what you might have done previously. But you’re investing in your employees who will be able to manage their time more accurately and efficiently moving forward.
4. Check if the systems you’ve put in place are helping or hindering their productivity
Not all employee time management issues are entirely the employee’s fault.
In fact, many of the systems or processes that have been put in place to help productivity and time management in the workplace can actually very much hinder it.
Think about the humble team meeting organized weekly.
On the surface, these meetings are a great place to update everyone in the team and hierarchy, catch up on a project’s progress so far, and create an environment of knowledge sharing. However, even with such good intentions, and planning meetings often rarely work out that way.
Instead, they become a crutch for answering the question “What do we do now?” When a complex problem arises, the knee-jerk reaction is to call for a meeting to discuss rather than have all the team members waste time not knowing what to do.
Too many meetings often break up time for focused work. They often lack a well-thought-out agenda, leaving it unclear how people are expected to contribute to the project. And in the end, ironically, the follow-on action is usually just to have another meeting!
Meetings are just one example of good intentions gone awry. There’s also your documentation policy, project management process, or even your choice of communication tool for the project.
When some researchers, talked to some knowledge workers across 45 different companies, they found that most were spending almost 30% of their time on desk work (basic, repeatable tasks like admin) with another 40% on just communication.
This leaves only 30%, or 2.5 hours a day, to do meaningful work.
To combat all this wasted time, the researchers asked employees to do this simple exercise:
- Keep a track of your calendar over the next 2 weeks and identify activities (meetings, tasks, calls, etc) that you can most easily get out of. This could mean dropping, delegating, or outsourcing it.
- Create a log of those activities listing what you targeted, why it was chosen, how you’re actually going to get out of it, and most importantly, what you’re going to do with that freed uptime.
- At the end of each week, go back over your calendar and track what happened to your priorities and that activity, how much time you saved, and what you did instead.
At the end of the 2 weeks, most people had reclaimed more than 8 hours a week of meaningful work.
5. Build policies that protect ‘innovation’ time
As a manager, you’re probably used to putting out fires or dealing with issues as they come up. However, for employees who usually spend most of their days on heads down or creative work like writing, coding, or designing, these sorts of interruptions might completely derail their day.
Paul Graham, founder of “Y Combinator”, considers this “Manager time” vs “Maker time”:
“The manager’s schedule is…embedded in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one-hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task in hand if you need to, but by default, you change what you’re doing every hour…”
“…But there’s another way of using time, that is quite common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer using time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well if it is kept track of, in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started on anything.”
If you’re facing serious employee time management issues, it might simply be because they’re working according to their manager’s schedule.
Not only does this make it absolutely hard to see progress on bigger tasks but constant context switching prevents makers from fully engaging in their creative tasks and thus hinders their motivation levels too.
As Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, explains, this isn’t an individual issue, but an organizational one. In fact, almost none of the companies support the maker schedule:
“The reasons for this reality are mostly straightforward: (a) distractions like constant messaging and frequent team meetings may often seem convenient in the moment for the person instigating them; (b) most organizations place no barriers around such practices or behaviors; (c) without these barriers, convenience will almost always win.”
Communication is key to any organization’s growth and success. But it can also just as easily get in the way of getting real work done, on time. If you want to help your team do their best work, you need to put the right policies in place to protect their time.
Employee time management isn’t just an individual issue, for particular companies. Almost every organization, faces this at some point in time. As leaders, you have the opportunity to guide your team towards becoming more productive and efficient workers. And while it might take some upfront investment of your own time, the return on investment is more than worth it.