Eye on the Workforce

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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.

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Employers Don't Know What Workers Want Now

This Tendency May Lead You to Bad Decisions

Why You Should Not Focus on Self Esteem

Eat This Way for Workforce Productivity 2

Eat This Way for Workforce Productivity

Employers Don't Know What Workers Want Now
Categories: Communication, Manage People, Performance Improvement

One thing I try to do in this blog is make sure you are aware of areas where you may have misconceptions about what your workforce needs to be productive. After that, of course, I give you ideas to use in your project. Here's your latest test.

Which of the following two lists represents the five factors, in order of descending importance, that workers in a recent study said causes them stress?

Group A

  1. Inadequate staffing (lack of support, uneven workload or performance in group)
  2. Low pay or low increase in pay
  3. Unclear or conflicting job expectations
  4. Organizational culture, including lack of teamwork, and tendency to avoid accountability and assign blame to others
  5. Lack of work/life balance (excessive workloads or long hours)

Group B

  1. Lack of work/life balance (excessive workloads or long hours)
  2. Inadequate staffing (lack of support, uneven workload or performance in group)
  3. Technologies that expand availability during nonworking hours (e.g. mobiles, notebooks)
  4. Unclear or conflicting job expectations
  5. Fears about job loss, too much change.

While there are some overlaps, you would have to know the correct list in order to properly intervene to help your workers be more satisfied with their jobs and more productive in your project. Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health teamed up in the U.S. to study how workers felt about their stress at work. Researchers asked employers the same questions to see what employers believed the main sources of stress are. That's why there are two lists above, one is the employee list and one is the employer list.

The study found that there is a disconnect. Take a minute to get over the shock.

The worker's list of causes of stress is Group A. Note how workers are more concerned about inadequate staffing. Group B, representing employers' view, shows employers think the main problem is of work/life balance. Just looking at these two factors illustrates a trend. Employers believe that they can implement programs to help employees solve their own problems. But employees see the main cause as outside of their control, and inadequate staffing leads to uneven group performance and keeps them from getting the support they need. No wonder participation in employer programs for health and productivity is low.

You can make a big difference if you give workers in your project the support they need.

Help everyone prioritize their work . . . With so much to do and not enough resources, workers report that they need more help with prioritization.

Clarify the matrix . . Workers complain of matrixed organizations working under inadequate staffing where conflicts occur from multiple projects and uncontrolled workflow.

Pay attention to your high potentials . . . Don't make the common mistake of believing your high-potentials are immune to stress. If the study represents you workplace, chances are that your high potentials are working harder than others and are burning out. They may be looking to leave for greener pastures.

Help with time flexibility . . . If there was a peak period of work where long hours were needed, reduce hours during a slow period by giving people Friday off or Fri afternoon off or some other option they suggest. Tell your workers that they can come to you and ask for a break.

Listen to complaints about what you cannot change . . . Be a good listener. Perhaps the complaint is low wages after hearing the enterprise has had another profitable year. This is a common feeling according to the study. 

Think of your own ideas appropriate for your workplace that can help workers with their highest sources of stress. You don't have to solve managment's problem with meeting the needs of the workforce. You just have to build a powerful skill useful for the foreseeable future.

Posted on: April 08, 2014 07:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

This Tendency May Lead You to Bad Decisions
Categories: Manage People, Performance Improvement

Let's say you need a solution to a relatively complex project problem. It could be to fill a gap in a portion of the technology solution. It could be to simply design a better solution.

Let's say further that you have two proposals at this point.

  1. Proposal 1 is from a team in your project workforce. This proposal does something your company has never done before and does appear to solve the problem based on your first read.
  2. Proposal 2 is from a well-respected consulting firm on the opposite coast from where your office lies. Your initial evaluation determines that their unique solution also solves the problem.

Given only this information, what is your inclination? Would you choose Proposal 1 or Proposal 2? What details would you want to see next?

If your reaction is like most people, you would have a tendency to favor the consulting firm's idea. But not necessarily because it is from a consulting firm. Researchers found that when people were told that an idea was generated far away, they rated the idea as significantly more creative than when the idea was generated nearby.

It turns out that your mind interprets nearness as detailed and concrete and tends to become more critical of the idea. On the other hand, your mind interprets distance as more abstract and may not be critical enough when making a decision.

At any given time, you will be looking for solutions to problems in

  • Training
  • Design
  • Construction/Development
  • Documentation
  • Process Improvement
  • Product Innovation
  • And more.

So don't miss out on good ideas right under your nose. Awareness of your tendencies will help you overcome  this problem. But also consider using a standard test or scoring process to select between rival alternatives. Be sure this standard process is used throughout your project to make decisions between options.

Consider also the benefits of innovation using your existing workforce. This builds morale and expertise for the future. You will have a more engaged workforce if they know that their creative ideas may help make the organization more successful.

Posted on: March 17, 2014 07:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Why You Should Not Focus on Self Esteem
Categories: Leadership, Manage People, Performance Improvement

It’s important to have workers and teams with the ability to persevere. When they have this ability, they are better able to drive results you want, to push through obstacles effectively, to work ethically and avoid problematic short cuts, among many other benefits.

So how do you, as a project manager, build the ability of workers and teams to persevere? Should you bring in a motivational speaker to build up your project team? Or should you bring in a basic training sergeant to scare them into persevering?

It was not that clear until relatively recently, where researchers found a link between perseverance and self esteem. Basically, in the study, researchers raised their subject’s self esteem using mental imagery. Researchers also reduced subject’s self esteem using opposite mental images. Then, in each case, they had their subjects attempt to make a complex decision. The interesting results were:

  • Those who had their self-esteem raised did not want to risk losing that self esteem, so did not persevere to complete the complex decision.
  • Those who had their self-esteem lowered worked harder to solve the complex problem, to build back their self-esteem.

It turns out that self esteem can be fragile if it is not based on something tangible. Self esteem that is achieved by accomplishing something difficult is not as fragile.

The implications project managers:  There is now an even stronger reason to give the right type of balanced feedback to workers and teams. The right feedback can align attention and perseverance on those factors that will lead to better performance. Don’t focus on self esteem. Focus on feedback.

Specific Feedback Tips

  • Don’t give vague praise. This will build fragile self esteem that can lead to avoidance of problem solving.
  • When providing positive feedback, do be specific on what was done right and why it is being recognized.
  • Don’t give vague instructions to “do better”. This will be a lost opportunity.
  • Give very specific clear constructive feedback on performance or behavior. While this may temporarily reduce self esteem, it will motivate the worker to build back self esteem by closing the gap.
  • More leverage:  Coach your team leads to provide feedback in the same way.
  • Treat teams just like workers. Give specific and balanced feedback.

Forego the motivational speaker and the drill sergeant. Just refine your skill at providing feedback and you can build up your project team’s ability to persevere.

You can listen to a radio interview that explains the research in a little more detail.

Posted on: February 03, 2014 07:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Eat This Way for Workforce Productivity 2
Categories: Communication, Leadership, Manage People

The fact that workers need interaction with each other to be more productive was made clear in my last post. What was not so clear was how you, a mere project manager, can use what the studies are telling us to make your workforce more productive without a lot of effort on your part.

By “productivity improvements,” we are looking for ways to obtain

  • Enhanced communication between groups experiencing friction
  • Additional collaboration where an inadequate collaboration is the status quo

The studies showed that eating together and taking breaks together provide just the kind of unstructured/lightly structured interactions that enhanced collaboration later.

You can foster these kinds of interactions in the following ways:

  • Support a continuing lunch routine (perhaps weekly or monthly) that supports a work culture which values interactions and relationships.
  • Build rapport, for example by asking people to share interesting facts about themselves.
  • When you attend, model behaviors that foster the collaborative environment you seek. Show your commitment. Elaborate on the importance of working relationships.
  • As part of your wider plan, create special interaction events where you can give general feedback and listen openly to workers, which is necessary for worker engagement.
  • When appropriate, give plenty positive feedback to everyone based on objective facts or be silent and allow discussion on latest worker issues.

Recommend that other project groups adopt the same tactic of scheduling unstructured time. Everyone on the whole project does not have to eat together each time. What you are looking for, though, is many people interacting with each other often. (Remember that the more people who sat at the table, the more productivity there was.)

Be careful to avoid leaving out those who are not in the office. Take measures to ensure they are involved.

  • Schedule face-to-face unstructured time when they plan to be “in the office.”
  • Have them on the phone when unstructured meetings occur. Call on them to get their opinion or input.

Think of your own ideas. Just keep the structure to a minimum and the interactions between workers at a maximum.

Posted on: January 07, 2014 07:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Eat This Way for Workforce Productivity
Categories: Communication, Manage People, Performance Improvement

How you eat affects workforce performance.
Don’t roll your eyes, this is proven practice. Let me explain. 

If you’re like me, you are always looking for a way to get more out of your project workforce, especially if it does not require a survey, participation by a team from HR, or a long training class – any significant extra effort really.

You may also have experienced problems between project work groups where they just did not communicate with each other well or they did not plan their schedule well together or where some other collaboration problem existed. How do you get these people to fix whatever problem is there without micromanaging or having some kind of facilitation meeting or therapy session? 

Recent studies have made clear the importance of face-to-face interactions, especially “unstructured” interactions, my term for informal meetings when there is no agenda.  For example, this article describes several studies with these results:

  • A Bank of America worker tracking study that found that work teams that interact with each other often are more productive.

  • Productivity rose at least 10% when a bank call center switched from solo breaks to group breaks.

  • A technology company switched to larger lunch tables when they found that people were more productive when they sat at tables designed for 12 instead of smaller tables. 

A University of Michigan study on researchers (yes, researchers studying other researchers!) found that the more “zonal overlap” scientists had in their daily walks within and between buildings, the more collaboration there would be. They even calculated that for every 100 feet of zonal overlap there was 20% more collaboration.

So we have plenty of evidence from a broad spectrum of organizations and worker categories that collaboration is linked to unstructured interactions. So how can we as project managers put this information into practice to help us make our project workforces collaborate better without doing too much work?

  • Have them eat lunch together.

  • While you are at it, have them take breaks together.

OK, so these are simplistic options. In the next post, coming in a few days, I’ll give you a list of tactics based on increasing collaboration through routine interaction.

Posted on: December 31, 2013 06:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)
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