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

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

How to Structure a Bad News E-mail Message

Keep Drama on the Stage

How Communication Channels Matter

SMART Goals? Not So Much.

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 (1)

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 (11)

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 (2)

How Communication Channels Matter

In today's work environments, we should be adept at receiving, understanding and acting on communications via different channels, right? (Different channels being emails, face-to-face, telephone conversations and voice mail and so on.) I remember seeing guidance for older workers telling them not to be surprised to receive communications via text message from their younger boss. We are really evolving away from the need for constant face-to-face contact, aren't we?

To get a little more clarity on this, a team of researchers conducted a study of digital communications between supervisors and employees. The researchers were looking to see if "more digitally centered communication satisfies employee's needs regarding the communication with their supervisors and influences attitudes toward the supervisor and the job." That's a good objective because as project managers, we want to ensure that our communication is effective and that it helps (and motivates) project teams and workers to complete their tasks as expected.

In the study, the research team has employees evaluate communication quantity and quality, and even report on ideal use of communication channels. They measured three things:

  • Employees’ job satisfaction
  • Employees’ perceptions of their supervisors’ effectiveness
  • Employees’ team identification

Here's a summary of what they found:

  • Employees prefer face-to-face communication over email and telephone.
  • Employees studied desired more face-to-face communication with their supervisors than they actually received.
  • The more face-to-face communication that occurred between supervisors and employees, the more the employees had higher job satisfaction and team identification. The employees were also more likely to see their supervisor as more effective. There was a strong correlation in all three areas.

So project managers who are also supervisors of workers, take note. There appears to be good evidence for you to prioritize face-to-face contact. Could be good for your career.

Let me suggest that these results are also instructive for project managers who are not direct supervisors. A future study may find that there is not as strong a correlation for "dotted line" project manager communications, but I would wager that project managers who prioritize face-to-face communications over email and telephone are seen as more effective and have project teams with higher job satisfaction and team identification.

It is up to you to find appropriate times to switch to face-to-face communications. Consider the following:

  • Routine meetings that typically use conference line - change all or significant occurrences to face-to-face meetings
  • Weekly phone meetings with key teams or individuals - find a conference room or use video conference
  • Long, detailed emails typically sent out to distribution lists - evaluate whether topic is important or complex enough to warrant an initial face-to-face session to focus attention of busy participants
  • Take special precautions to involve those who, for logistics reasons, cannot attend face-to-face meetings with the rest of team. The more important face-to-face meetings are, the more disadvantaged are those who cannot participate.

Perhaps those who are trying to use digital communications to become more efficient are not seeing the drawbacks. You can take a more wise course knowing the results of this study. The toughest part may be justifying the expense of face-to-face meetings and video conferences. What do you think?

Posted on: September 20, 2015 11:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

SMART Goals? Not So Much.

How many of you depend on the SMART goal (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) tactic for improving performance? A large number, I'll wager, no matter what other type of performance system is in place. It makes a lot of sense. Who would not want goals that met those criteria?

Unfortunately, such goals do not work as well as described and typically used. The evidence is overwhelming in the literature, it just has not filtered down to how workers are managed.

Kenneth M. Nowack, Ph.D, in his article, Urban Talent Myths Exposed in (Talent Management Magazine), explains that, as recently as 2012 there was a study of workers that found that 15% strongly agreed that their goals helped them "achieve great things." That fact shows there is a gap between the ingrained beliefs behind goal-setting performance management programs and what actually is effective.

This blog focuses on helping you get past these kinds of misconceptions by reviewing actual science that helps us understand what really works. So let's look more closely at the evidence. According to Nowack, "nearly 200 published studies…have shown that deciding in advance under what conditions you will plan to implement a new behavior can significantly increase your chances of actually doing it." This is the missing piece of the puzzle, the technique that will make goals more effective than they are now.

The technique, according to Nowack is to plan performance improvement in this way:

“If situation X occurs, then I will initiate behavior Y to reach goal X.” This takes an extra level of planning effort than just coming up with SMART goals, but is very practical.

Given this, what are you to do to improve performance in your project?

  • Use the technique yourself. For those performance gaps you have, create statements using the structure above, keep them handy and at "top of your mind" and follow them.
  • Now that you have experience using the technique, explain it to others.
  • Communicate the technique as a tip for your workforce. It's not that difficult to explain and when everyone does not report to you, it a way to improve performance using your influence.
  • Use this technique in your coaching. It should not be difficult, as it is usually specific situations that cause you to coach in the first place when you are a project manager. These situations are "Situation X" in the structure above. An example of how you would coach a less-experienced team lead:
    "When we are in the weekly meeting to report updates on tasks, if you give just basic information on percent complete and wait for follow-up questions before providing extensive background information, I could use that as an example for your manager of your improvement in working in projects."

However you use the technique, be proud of the fact that you may be a step ahead of other leaders and even the human resource professionals in your organization. And that, project managers, is smart.

Posted on: August 28, 2015 04:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)