Grease the Wheels, Don’t Jam Them Up

Friction is how your brakes slow your car, so you can bet that friction will put the brakes on your workplace, too.

By “friction,” we are not just talking about bad feelings and awkward silences between people, though that is certainly one form of it. What we mean instead is anything in your working environment that slows down the work that creates business value. Sometimes these things are simply a fact of life, things that must be done or endured and there is really no way to avoid them. Very often, though, friction occurs because of individual choices, and it could just as easily be gotten rid of by making a different choice.

There are lots of things that can slow your employees, and every industry or organization may have its own unique friction points, but there are some that are pretty common.

Administrivia Having your employees deal with administrative tasks takes them away from the work that contributes directly to business value. Try not to make them do a lot of reporting, and instead let them focus on things you want them to be reporting about. Rather than having them do a lot of HR or financial paperwork, see if you an take that off their hands (unless they are in HR or Finance). One of your most important jobs is to ensure an environment where your employees can do their best work, so try to take care of the distracting tasks yourself. Also, remember why you hired them. If you are hiring someone to be a professor in your department, don’t try to use them as your secretary. When you bring someone in as a web designer, don’t use them as your on-call tech support every time you have a Microsoft Word question.

Meetings Meetings are a fact of life in any group of more than one person. But there are good meetings, and not-so-good ones. They are easier to identify after the fact, of course; a good meeting is one where the time invested led to a worthwhile result, whereas a bad one is one where you merely slowed everything down by taking time to sit around a table (and in some cases, taking time to prep for it, or to follow up on silly questions afterwards). Try not to hold meetings you do not have to have, and do not force your employees to sit in on meetings where they are not going to contribute and from which they will not get anything they cannot get from you in a post-meeting summary. Having an “on-demand” audience is a waste of their time and talents.

Collaboration Timing You may have a fairly unstructured workplace without set hours for your employees to be in the office. That can be useful, but if your efforts require a lot of collaboration, that can be a real hassle, too. Try to balance the desire for freedom of work with the need for people to be together. This is particularly challenging when you have free agents scattered throughout the country, or the world, and you need to align different time zones. Realize that the people working in countries that are distant from the main office should not always be the ones working in the middle of the night. It’s helpful, too, to impress upon your employees the need to be where they say they are going to be when they say they are going to be there. Having a bunch of people sitting around waiting on others is a waste of time, so set the example by making punctuality a priority for yourself.

Approvals No matter how flat your organization may be, there will typically be a need for someone to approve work at different stages. Whether it is a work-in-progress or something coming up for final review, you should try to get the approval process done as quickly as possible so your team is not sitting around waiting, then scrambling to fix something in the short time they have after getting your response. They need to go forward, and they will hesitate to do so before getting your feedback because they might go in the wrong direction, so they are likely to sit and wait until you respond. You don’t want to pay your employees to sit around and wait, so try not to put them in that situation.

Uncertainty Job uncertainty distracts your employees. If people are unsure about what is happening in the organization, and what may be happening to their job, it’s hard to focus on actually doing their job. It is not just concerns about their particular position that leaves them wondering, it is concern about any changes that might be coming up or rumors that are circulating. Make your workplace as transparent as possible so your employees are not always wondering about what they aren’t being told.

If you want to get their best work, you need to help your employees stay focused and facilitate their collaboration. You want the process to move along smoothly, and you want it to move as quickly as it can. Don’t allow your team to be slowed or sidetracked by little things. You are paying them to create value for your organization, so help them do exactly that.