Best Practices in HR

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Robyn Whalen
  March 25, 2019

Q&A with an IO Psychologist on Being More Productive

If you wish you were more efficient and productive at work, you’re not alone.

In fact, the demand for increased work productivity is so great that there’s a field of research dedicated solely to it: Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

Or, IOP for short.

Over the years, Dr. Kara Fasone, an I/O psychologist and wellness researcher, has applied psychological principles within organizations to help employees maximize their self-awareness, motivation, and performance. She’s created and managed a variety of people-focused processes related to employee engagement, talent management, career development, and workplace wellness.

With all her inside knowledge of productivity in the workplace and more, we wanted to pick her brain on best practices.

Below, Dr. Fasone, also the creator of the Wise & Well Academy, shares advice on increasing employee work performance, measuring productivity, and fostering a sense of self-awareness.

Your background is in Industrial Organizational Psychology. What exactly is that?

The overall goal of Industrial Organizational Psychology (IOP) is to study and understand human behavior in the workplace, and use that knowledge to create policies, programs, and cultures that help maximize the performance, productivity, and overall engagement of employees.

IOP was a natural fit for me because my life passion is helping others achieve their fullest potential both inside and outside the workplace, and this field focuses on increasing workplace productivity and related issues such as the physical and mental well-being of employees.

How do you explain IOP to people who’ve never heard of it?

Although it’s a fast-growing field, it continues to be unfamiliar to many people. So, for those completely new to IOP, I like to describe it as the scientific study of the workplace that combines principles of HR, data, social psychology, and management consulting. People, data, processes, change…the whole shebang!

How does IOP help companies and employees achieve maximum performance?

IO psychologists perform a wide variety of tasks, including studying worker attitudes and behavior (woo-hoo, employee engagement surveys!), evaluating company cultures and the probability that employees will accept or reject specific rituals, policies, or programs, and conducting team building or leadership development workshops.

The biggest impact that IOP has in the workplace includes:

  • Enabling organizations to build an appealing brand & culture that attracts and retains top talent
  • Offering strategic learning opportunities to continuously grow employees and help them maximize their performance
  • Measuring employee sentiments (like engagement) to determine what the company can do to create a sense of commitment, which leads to long-term retention of employees.

Why does productivity matter — personally and professionally?

Because we have a fixed set of hours in a work week, it’s important that organizations are able to help employees complete their work in a way that maximizes their output — AKA effectiveness.

Let’s look at 2 employees on the same team who are both working on a similar project:  Creating a training for their team to better utilize a new system.

  • Employee #1: Busy, not productive. This employee is working around the clock and oftentimes stays late to create the perfect training. S/he is sourcing the “perfect” images for the training deck and fleshing out a full set of speaker notes from start to finish. The final output looks polished and professional, but the content does not address the overall training objective.
  • Employee #2: Effective & productive. This employee begins the project by creating a general outline and reviewing it with system subject matter experts. S/he is able to create a succinct, interactive, and informative workshop-style training that helps employees understand the use of the system and practice various case scenarios. The deliverable was effective in training the team and was created in only 3 days worth of work — no staying late required!

In this situation, you can see how various employees may differ in terms of productivity. Employee #1 could benefit from coaching to help him/her understand how to create a project plan, collaborate with SMEs/stakeholders, and/or weigh the importance of factors like design.

What are some of the most common productivity stealers you see in companies?

E-mail and instant messaging (IM) is a big productivity stealer. Human brains aren’t designed to multi-task, so taking continuous breaks to check your e-mail, scroll your phone, or respond to an “urgent” IMs can steal away the mental power you had previously committed to an important project. You’re forced to expend additional energy to shift back into “work” mode.

I recommend setting specific times to check e-mails or IMs, if possible. I check my e-mail at 10 AM, 1 PM, and right as I’m wrapping up for the day.

What tips do you have for employers to host more productive meetings?

When run well, they can be great tools to organize and motivate employees, but more often than not meetings are time-wasters. These tips are simple, but SO important:

  • Have an agenda that clearly defines the purpose of the meeting
  • Only invite those who need to be there. Are they decision makers or SMEs?
  • Send pre-work or pre-reading material with a specific ask. You’ll get a MUCH better response rate if you’re clear about exactly what you need participants to prepare
  • Start on time and end on time
  • Create a “parking lot” to store discussion points that arise, but don’t align with the agenda. You can always follow-up
  • Send a list of takeaways and action items within 24 hours 

Is there a “best way” to measure employee productivity?

Sometimes it’s straightforward. Take call center representatives, for example. A handful of metrics (e.g., call time, # contacts per hour, # customer kudos) can all provide an understanding of productivity. It’s important that these metrics align with the company culture, though.

Zappos, for instance, is a huge advocate of creating an amazing customer experience, so short customer call times wouldn’t be an appropriate measure of effectiveness or productivity. Rather, a measure of customer satisfaction would better capture the desired outcome for a Zappos representative.

How do you measure the effectiveness of a leader?

An organization might expect leaders to set team goals and/or decide to use 360-degree feedback to help a leader understand his/her strengths within the role. It may sound cliché, but measuring productivity is truly an art.

What’s the first step you recommend to be more organized and productive?

For an individual, I recommend building self-awareness. You might ask yourself questions like:

  • What measurable impact have I left (or not left) through my most recent work projects?
  • What types of tasks do I struggle to complete & why?
  • What types of tasks energize me & why?
  • How can I integrate these energizing tasks into my daily work to help me feel more motivated to get things done?
  • What are the biggest time wasters/distractors I regularly engage in?

Clear self-awareness isn’t just achieved through a self-assessment. It’s also important to seek out a trusted person (whether your manager or your peer) to provide their perspective and help you identify any “blind spots” that may prevent you from being the best you can be.

What best practices do you recommend to increase productivity?

Debrief and plan on Fridays. I know it can be tempting to zoom out of work and into your weekend on Friday, but a few minutes of self-reflection can mean the difference between a busy vs. a productive week come Monday.

Every Friday, I use the 3-2-1 approach to reflect on my week and plan for the next. It looks like this:

  • Reflect on 3 things that I appreciate about my job, 2 things that I did well, and 1 thing that could have gone better.
  • Plan for the 3 things that should be high-priority for next week; 2 things that would be nice to do if I had time, and 1 thing to improve my performance

Block out productive time. This technique is so important, especially if you’re engaged in project work. Each week, use your calendar/planner and block out 1-2 hour blocks of time for heads-down project work. This creates a commitment for you to maximize those 1-2 hours to be creative without distractions AND it shows others that you have high-priority work to complete.

What are some of the best productivity tools?

As far as productivity tools, there are so many out there. The key is finding a tool that meets your needs and preferences. I’m a fan of Trello for keeping track of project work; Zoom for meeting with remote co-workers when we need to collaborate, and Slack to share info. or questions with others in real-time.

Are there any downsides to being a perfectionist or overachiever in order to be productive? You mentioned you’re a “recovering perfectionist” on your website.

Perfectionism can cause paralysis.

It’s robbed me of the opportunity to collaborate and iterate because I was afraid to show others my work until it was in its final form. I’ve since embraced the 80-20 rule. As long as it’s 80% complete, it’s more than likely ready to roll out. There’s nothing stopping you from further refining a deliverable in the future.

On a related note, perfectionism creates resistance (or fear) of constructive feedback. Many companies struggle with empowering their employees to provide real-time, constructive feedback.

I’ve learned over time that giving and receiving this type of feedback is the kindest thing you can do for yourself and your co-workers; it helps everyone continuously improve and do better.

How can we be more productive in all areas of life?

It comes back down to self-awareness. You have to understand which areas of your life you’re neglecting and how important building habits within those areas are to you. Only then can you prioritize your time and efforts to help you build the life you want. 

How does being productive impact our health overall?

As a wellness researcher, I know the concept of “health and overall wellness” can be daunting. Most people don’t know that there are so many dimensions that all interact to help you live healthfully. I advocate a 7-dimension model.

If you’re only focused on 1 or 2 wellness dimensions, you’re likely to feel a bit out of balance and that dampens your productivity at work (and in life) big time.

Do you have an example of how it can impact our health?

I always use my “past” self as an example.

I was a health nut and focused all my time and energy on meal prepping and keeping up with a strict exercise regimen. I may have looked like the poster child of “health”, but I was missing out on important social activities that conflicted with my diet or workout routine. I didn’t know how to manage stress from work, and I ended up feeling lonely, anxious, and not at all healthy.

By understanding these interactions, you can identify where you’re missing the mark. Being productive might look different for everyone, depending on the stage they’re at in their lives.

The more small habits and wins you achieve (i.e., I took a short break for lunch every day this week. As a result, I feel less stressed and more motivated), the more likely you are to feel energized and ready to be productive and vice versa.

Do you have any predictions about the future of companies that use IOP to improve their workplaces?

I may be a little biased, but I think workplace wellness is going to continue growing in popularity, particularly within areas of mindfulness and stress management for employees.

It’s not enough to help employees learn the product, the service, and the skills needed to perform in their role. It’s going to become increasingly important to ensure that employees are in the right headspace and have the skills to cope with stressful situations and busy schedules.

Anything else you’d like to add about productivity, time management, etc.?

Just a friendly reminder for those attempting to embrace new habits or boost their productivity: “Chase progress, not perfection.” The important thing is that you’re aware of your opportunity area.

Good luck on your journey!

Interested in more ways to boost productivity? Check out our guide to increasing productivity at work!

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