Eye on the Workforce

Workforce management is a key part of project success, but project managers often find it difficult to get trustworthy information on what really works. From interpersonal interactions to big workforce issues we'll look the latest research and proven techniques to find the most effective solutions for your projects.

About this Blog


Recent Posts

Disengagement and Low Unemployment - A Toxic Combination

Communicate Value of Your Project Early

What's Killing Productivity? And What Should You Not Do?

How to Structure a Bad News E-mail Message

Keep Drama on the Stage

Disengagement and Low Unemployment - A Toxic Combination

As a country, Germany is doing well economically, but there is a problem in the workforce. A large number of employees in Germany are "disengaged" at work.  That means that these employees are not involved in, enthusiastic about or committed to their work, coworkers and workplace. They do not give 100% and may even undermine productivity.

Sounds unfortunate for the disengaged workers, but is there something you can learn from this situation?

As a matter of fact, there is. An economy can be humming along, yet that does not mean that in an organization - your organization - workers are satisfied and engaged. Workers can be suffering from disengagement with its negative consequences on your project. There just seems to be no correlation that suggests peaks in economic measures means happy days in your project. I would caution even that low unemployment may make your life as a project manager worse when workers are disengaged.

Look at Germany for instance. According to Gallup, the annual absenteeism rate in Germany is "67% higher among actively disengaged employees compared with engaged workers." Think about your projects and how absenteeism will slow down work and add to costs.

Even worse, disengaged workers are more likely to be looking for another job. That will create a new problem. The article mentions something that has been covered previously on the Eye on the Workforce blog: studies have shown that costs related to replacing an employee can be as high as 1.5 times the employee's annual salary. In Germany, according to the Bundesagentur für Arbeit (Germany's federal job agency) it took 84 days to fill a vacancy with a qualified employee in 2015, on average. That's 19 more days than it took to fill a vacancy in 2008. You might have already experienced difficulty finding new workers or replacements those who have left.

And here is the factor that multiplies your problem: Disengaged workers are more likely to leave. Gallup found in Germany for example that 87% of engaged employees strongly agreed that they planned to be with their current company three years from now. For actively disengaged workers only 21% strongly agreed that they planned to be with their current company three years from now. More likely to leave - and to leave you in the lurch. Low unemployment can make it even more difficult for you to maintain the productive resources you need in your project.

Employee engagement does not have to do with economics as much as it has to do with management policies. (There are many other articles and posts on employee engagement by me on this site.) If workers are disengaged at your workplace, be prepared for low morale and a schedule will that has to adapt to absenteeism and extended periods of replacing workers.

How has employee disengagement - and perhaps low unemployment - affected your project?

Posted on: May 03, 2016 07:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Communicate Value of Your Project Early

One problem that you as a project manager have to deal with early in the project is aligning workers to the objective of the project. This is not aligning to any specific deliverables, mind you. It's deeper than that. It's getting the agreement or consent to participate in the project as a whole.                           

You can't expect everyone to be doing their utmost for your project from the very start. Some people may work with you grudgingly and not believe in the purpose of your project. Some may not participate fully because they have a lot of conflicts even though they want to participate with you because they believe your project is so important to the company. There are many other possibilities.

So how do you get people to see your project as a priority? As an important project in the company? As a significant effort that they want to be seen participating in? As an activity that they may even want to spend a little extra effort making sure it is successful?

You can link your project to corporate strategy and business benefits in a powerful way. Who does not want to be part of meeting the business strategy and attaining business benefits?

First, connect your project to corporate strategy. Chris Cancialosi, PhD suggests a strategic narrative to communicate the corporate strategy. Your leaders may not be using the strategic narrative technique, but you can use ideas from that to build a better presentation of the link between your project and the business strategy.
    • Explain "what was", "what is" (just before and during the project), and "what will be" after the project and how your project makes that future happen. Make sense out of the change. Emphasize what will be better.
    • Link to values. There may be one or two that sync up nicely with your project
    • Link to profitability. Everyone wants more money coming in so they have more money for their teams. Profits come from reducing costs or increasing revenue, so pick the one that most closely represents your project
The second area is business benefits that are being sought. Again, this is a part of your conversations with stakeholders.   You should be able to identify something specific related to stakeholder interests, such operational efficiency, new capabilities, marketplace advantage, and so on.

This might seem a little too time- and energy-consuming . Is it worth the effort?
I think it is. Linkages to either of these areas will help build "employee engagement," that critical factor that gets workers to work hard and give a little extra when needed. ("Employee engagement" is a topic covered in this blog all the time.) You will also benefit from fewer conflicts from other projects because you will have established your project as a higher priority.

Still, your time is limited, how could you do this to make is less time consuming and fit into project activities?
    • Create a slide for your kickoff meeting or improve the one you already have for strategy link or business benefits from your project.
    • Get with your sponsor to confirm your understanding of connection to business strategy is correct. Have the "what was, what is, what is to be" narrative style in your mind as you confirm.
    • Get with stakeholders to find benefits or impacts in advance that fit into the mold of your connection to the strategy.
    • For business benefits, use the same tactics. Talk to the same people if those have not already been specified in the Charter or other project documentation.

The point is to have a powerful, succinct presentation that you use early in your project. This can put you ahead in the game to capture the time, attention and commitment of those who will make your project successful.

Posted on: March 13, 2016 06:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

What's Killing Productivity? And What Should You Not Do?

You'd like to make sure everyone on your project team is productive, but you know they aren't as productive as they could be. But what are the key productivity killers? Is it in the corporate culture? Is it simply smartphones? What about other distractions? What about meetings? If you knew, then perhaps you can intervene successfully.

Careerbuilder conducted a survey recently of employers to find out what were the major distractors. (If you've followed this blog much, you know that "obstacles to productivity" is an ongoing theme and we look at different related surveys and studies from different sources and perspectives to come up with solutions.)

Try to pick the top 5 from this list of the top 10. Remember this is a survey of employers.

  • Meetings
  • Gossip
  • Social media
  • Email
  • Cell phones/texting
  • The Internet
  • Co-workers dropping by
  • Smoke breaks/snack breaks
  • Noisy co-workers
  • Sitting in a cubicle

There are a lot of distractions on this list that you see every week if not every day, Certainly it would be worth your while to intervene by ensuring members of your team are at least mindful of what is likely keeping them from completing their tasks on time.

According to the CareerBuilder survey, employers reported the following as the top 5:

  1. Cell phones/texting: 52 percent
  2. The Internet: 44 percent
  3. Gossip: 37 percent
  4. Social media: 36 percent
  5. Email: 31 percent

Did you guess the top 5? Do you suspect your workplace may have different top 5 distractors?

In any case, what can you do about distractions in your project? It's better to be precise in your comments.

  • If you want to quickly target the most of the top 5, then think about commenting on using devices for non-work activity and the reduction of productivity that is the result. People generally know that they are distracted, so your reminder will help them manage themselves.
  • You can even try an informal reminder like, "I just saw a CareerBuilder survey about workplace distractions and a common source was from our screens. We all see people multitasking, sometimes with smartphones on non-work items. Let's keep this to a minimum as we are two weeks away from the next project deadline." This helps the team manage itself. No one wants to be seen following celebrity news when a big deadline is looming. They know that their output is needed by the team and the project.

What you should do is important, but more important may be what you should NOT do.

  • Avoid finding one person doing something such as texting a family member during a meeting and then sending out a nastygram to the whole team about smartphone abuse keeping the team from meeting the deadline. That just brings about resentment and reduces trust in your leadership. Worse, it may come about that the one distraction was not trivial, and that the worker was dealing with a hospitalized family member. Then you look like a jerk and your point is lost. Maybe you have seen that happen before.
  • Also keep from micro-managing everyone's time. Workplaces often depend on many hours being worked so that workers may have to take care of some personal business at work. This is not necessarily a problem and could be positive. Be flexible in these circumstances.

Your message should instead concentrate on the distractions related to unimportant and non-urgent non-work activities. Everyone will understand that.


What are major distractions in your workplace? How do you cope with them?

Posted on: November 25, 2015 02:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

How to Structure a Bad News E-mail Message

Have you ever been stressed by being required to pass along bad news to project workers? Maybe this will help.

Here are two e-mail communications with the same bad news, the difference being they are structured  differently. Which do you think is generally better to use? Assume the message comes by email after a conference call warns of an unspecified upcoming announcement regarding the project.

Example 1
As you know, we have experienced several obstacles in the project in recent months. We have not been able to find and place critical resources needed for current design and development work. Certain project partners and stakeholders were pulled away from the project to work on a high-priority regulatory initiative. Finally, costs are being incurred without adequate progress being made.

To respond appropriately to this situation, we will make the following adjustments in the next two weeks:

  • Suspend the project's design and development activities and many other activities
  •  Continue to find resources for the design and development work
  •  Slow down other work which will involve reducing the number of contracted workers and teams

Details will follow.

Example 2
In the next two weeks, we will make the following adjustments in the project:

  • Suspend the project's design and development activities and many other activities
  •  Continue to find resources for the design and development work
  •  Slow down other work which will involve reducing the number of contracted workers and teams

These changes are needed in order to respond appropriately to the current obstacles being experienced by the project. We have not been able to find and place critical resources needed for current design and development work. Certain project partners and stakeholders were pulled away from the project to work on a high-priority regulatory initiative. Finally, costs are being incurred without adequate progress being made.

Details will follow.

Basically, both messages provide the same information, just in different order, so is it really a big deal? That's what researchers Frank Jansen and Danial Janssen determined in their study. What they found was that study participants valued more highly messages with the explanation first, as in Example 1. This was called an "indirect structure," versus a "direct structure" where the bad news appeared first in the message as in Example 2.

So when you send out your email with bad news (and the preference difference seemed to be limited to e-mails), perhaps it will be less stressful on you when you know that you are using a structure that your audience will value more. Or that you will be using a best practice to communicate, a critical skill for project managers.

Posted on: November 03, 2015 11:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

Keep Drama on the Stage

How much does worker drama affect your projects? Is it a significant factor? Is it the common topic of conversations? Would you rather be focusing on something else, such as project tasks and priorities?

If you are experiencing drama from worker's immature behavior, you are not alone. Careerbuilder recently conducted a survey that is a bit depressing. A key finding: Seventy-seven percent of employees have witnessed some type of childish behavior among colleagues in the workplace. If nothing else, it can inspire you to take measures to reduce the amount of drama that may occur in your project.

CareerBuilder had their team survey 2,532 hiring and human resource managers and 3,039 employees for this report. All respondents were employed full-time and not self-employed.

The following behaviors were reported by more than 30% of respondents:

  • Whining(55%!) and pouting
  • Tattling
  • Starting rumors about co-workers
  • Playing pranks on co-workers
  • Forming cliques
  • Making faces behind a co-worker's back

Sounds like first grade. Of course, a small amount of pranks and fun can be healthy, but the results of this survey indicate that many workplaces have a culture that allows too much immature behavior. Looking through the list should make it clear that such behavior can be corrosive to teams, workforce morale and performance. Understand that this kind of culture does not occur immediately, but evolves over time as some improper behavior is allowed to happen, enabling others to do the same.

If your project work environment does not suffer from this situation, then give thanks and go to another post on this blog. But if you are cursed with such a work culture, then it would be best to take some kind of action rather than let your project be affected by such unconstructive acts.

First, stay positive and constructive. Your message theme should be related to everyone succeeding in the project so the project itself succeeds. Here are some example to get you started.

  • Early on, convey the message that constructive behavior is necessary for everyone to work together respectfully on teams. It enables everyone to trust each other. This is expected, of course, in your project.
  • Be specific as to what is expected, trying not to focus too much on what is not desired. Allow team members to add behaviors that help teams be successful.
  • Be careful when you say "professional" behavior is required. This is essentially an undefined term, so you should elaborate with examples and details when you use the term.
  • Correct those who exhibit improper behavior quickly and privately, contrasting their reaction to  the constructive alternatives discussed previously. Be sure the individual sees the disadvantage of the unconstructive behavior and the advantage of behaving more constructively.

Finally, you can counter with data from the survey. For example, the following indicators are used by significant numbers of employers (sometime significant majorities) that workers are not ready for promotion:

  • negative or pessimistic attitude
  • use of vulgar language
  • participation in office gossip

There are other tactics that apply to different types of work cultures. What might work in your experience? Do you work in an environment where there is drama or immature behavior? What is it like?

Posted on: October 16, 2015 09:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

"It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it."

- Steven Wright