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Poor productivity management is one of the biggest drivers of lackluster employee performance and engagement. Since many managers struggle to define job responsibilities, employees are often left with vague ideas about what’s the most productive way to spend their time at work.

Gallup research found that only about half of employees fully understand what’s expected of them and that their confusion alone lowers productivity by 10-20%. To counteract this, managers need to adapt how they assess performance to meet the needs of knowledge workers.

This article will teach you how to do that by diving into:

  1. The challenges of measuring knowledge worker productivity
  2. How to create a productivity management system for knowledge workers
  3. Ways you can improve employee productivity

By the end of it, you’ll have an actionable plan to boost your team’s performance.


Photo of four employees high-fiving at a desk to celebrate their increased productivity.

 The Challenges of Measuring Knowledge Worker Productivity

 For managers who oversee production workers, measuring productivity is simple:
Productivity = units of output divided by timeThough managers outside of industrial settings can’t use this simple formula to measure their team’s productivity, many do make the mistake of using its underlying KPI by pressuring employees to complete as much work as possible in the least amount of time.

The problem with that approach is that time and output are just two of several components of knowledge worker productivity. Emphasizing them encourages employees to complete assignments as quickly as possible and ignore quality-related factors.

When managing knowledge worker productivity, you must find ways to deal with challenges including:

  • They often produce assets that are difficult to measure - if they produce any at all.
  • They’re typically salaried and don’t adhere to strict work schedules which makes it nearly impossible to measure work per hour.
  • They often work on collaborative teams which make it challenging to track each employee’s individual contributions.

To create a fair and effective productivity management system, you need to take these challenges into account. The remainder of this article will explain how.

 

How to Create a Productivity Management System for Knowledge Workers

Getting an accurate measure of your team’s efforts requires looking at a variety of factors in addition to time and effort.

Here are a few you should focus on:

  • Quality: Regardless if employees produce tangible or intangible assets, their work should be tied to performance metrics so you have a clear way to assess their quality.
  • Impact on your company: Some projects that knowledge workers are responsible for don’t tie to any particular metrics, however, they have a positive impact on your company via intangible results such as improving employee engagement, helping other workers perform better, improving public perception of your company, etc.
  • Insights gained: Sometimes project failures yield unexpected insights that your team uses to make improvements to their approaches moving forward. When your team’s goal is to produce innovative work, these kinds of project failures should be considered productive.
  • Types of errors made: Mistakes slow down progress. However, before making judgments, you need to evaluate whether the person messed up because they were being careless or because they were working on a complex task and it wasn’t clear what the right thing to do was. If it’s the former, reprimanding your employee is justified - especially if it’s a recurring issue. But, if it’s the latter, discuss their decision-making processes with them and help them brainstorm ways to avoid similar issues in the future.
  • How autonomously they worked: Everyone in your organization’s time is valuable. If someone is constantly asking questions and seeking extensive feedback before making serious efforts to solve their problems themselves then negatively impacting other people’s productivity. Asking for help is great, but strong employees only do so after trying to solve problems independently.

Take each of these factors (plus any additional ones that are relevant to your positions) and create a performance evaluation sheet that lets you assign a point value to each one.

If some factors play a bigger role in your company’s performance than others, you should weigh them accordingly.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say you’re managing a sales team and you assess your team’s productivity based on the following factors:

  • Number of deals closed
  • Quality of deals (ex. Revenue from the deal, potential for future partnerships, etc.)
  • Autonomy (you only have one sales manager so it’s key that your representatives can work independently).
  • Insights gained (knowledge that they can use to improve your company’s sales process and/or help marketing)

These metrics are ranked in order of your team’s priorities so you might assign the following weights to them:

  • 50% weight for deals closed
  • 30% for the quality of deals
  • 15% for autonomy
  • 5% for insights gained

Applying the weights to the points for each metric will give your employees a productivity score that reflects your company’s goals.

Action Steps:

  • Choose your productivity factors.
  • Define how you are going to measure each of those factors.
  • Create a performance evaluation form based on your criteria.

 

How to Gain Buy-In From Employees on New Productivity Metrics

If your company currently doesn’t have a formal productivity measurement system, your team will be resistant due to fears that the new system will hinder their freedom and job security.

According to an article published in the Harvard Business Review, businesses’ change efforts fail when they don’t make efforts to effectively communicate how the changes affect employees.

To minimize employee resistance, you need to have a clear plan for how you’re going to roll out the system.

Here are three ways to get your employees on-board with new productivity metrics:

1) Be transparent about what factors you’re measuring and how.

Transparency is the most effective way to eliminate your employees’ fears about new performance metrics. When you’re ready to launch your new productivity management system, host a town hall where top leaders give an overview of the system, why your company decided to implement it, and the benefits it will have for your organization.

With a week or two of the town hall, have team leads meet with each of their direct reports one-on-one to review the specific metrics that they’re being held to and explain how their performance will be measured.

In each of these meetings, emphasize that you and other leaders will answer any questions people have.

 

2) Empower them to track their own productivity.

Give your employees access to their rubrics and teach them how to assess themselves. You should also provide additional resources (guides, checklists, etc) that help them improve upon each of the factors.

This is an effective way to gain buy-in since it reinforces that the system is a tool to help them become more effective at their jobs and gives them full transparency into how they are being assessed.

 

3) Use their results to teach them how to be more productive.

On a monthly or quarterly basis, meet one-on-one with each of your employees to review their performance on each of your productivity metrics. Make it clear that your criticism is purely constructive and they will only face consequences if they fail to make improvements.

Over time, your methods of measuring productivity will help you build a culture that values professional growth and encourages people to constantly strive to work more effectively.

 

Ways Managers Can Improve Knowledge Workers’ Productivity

Creating a productivity management system is a great way to track and measure employee performance; however, it doesn’t directly support the underlying conditions that drive productivity.

As you increasingly hold employees accountable to productivity metrics, you need to empower them with the resources and feedback they need to be effective at work.

The consulting firm, Advanced Workplace Associates, reviewed extensive research studies on knowledge workers and found that there are six conditions that are strongly correlated with increased productivity.

Here’s how you can facilitate each of those factors within your team:

1) Be available to provide advice and other support.

The majority of knowledge workers’ responsibilities involve creating original work whether it’s designing products, producing insights from data analysis, creating marketing materials, etc. Most workers love the creative freedom their job gives them, however, they often face doubts about whether they're taking the best approaches. By making yourself available to provide casual advice, you can alleviate their anxiety and help prevent them from wasting time on a poor idea.

 

2) Facilitate and promote information sharing.

Your employees are constantly learning new info and discovering solutions to problems. Ensuring that info is shared with your whole team enables everyone to do their work faster. If your team doesn’t already have a wiki, create one and instruct your team to write entries for approaches to solving new problems, general info that’s potentially relevant to other members of your team, new processes, project documentation, etc.

To make it easy to find answers, break your wiki into sections for different types of information and have your team create titles that clearly indicate what the info they’re sharing is about.

In addition to saving your team time, having a robust wiki also minimizes the impact of turnover since it gives new hires access to tons of info that will speed up their on-boarding.

 

3) Ensure every employee understands and is committed to their goals

A Harvard study found that only 5% of employees fully understand their company’s goals and the role they play in achieving them. Though that percentage is likely higher among knowledge workers than the general workforce, there’s still a huge gap between companies’ visions and employees’ perception of their work.

To bridge it, it’s vital that managers directly tie all of their employees’ projects to the larger company goals that they support. Not only does this help keep employees focused on the right metrics, but it also increases goal commitment since people are able to see the positive impact that their projects have.

If you lead workers who create their own projects, frequently ask them how their work contributes to your company’s goals. If their answer doesn’t reflect your organization's ambitions and/or they lack enthusiasm, coach them to become better aligned with and committed to the right goals.

 

4) Encourage them to seek insights from sources outside your company

To be successful, knowledge workers need to stay up-to-date on all of the emerging trends and technologies in their industry.  To do that, managers must encourage them to spend time gathering knowledge from outside your company.

Paying attention to industry news provides a solid baseline of knowledge. However, to stay ahead of the competition, you should urge your employees to also seek inspiration from unrelated fields. Research shows that highly creative people pursue a range of intellectual interests. Doing so allows them to think more divergently and make connections that people who are singularly focused are unable to.

 

5) Foster strong social bonds on your team

According to Gallup, employees with at least one close friend at work are twice as likely to be engaged than those who don’t. Not only do friends make work more enjoyable, but they also make it easier for employees to work together during challenging times such as when unexpected problems arise or they’re struggling to meet a big deadline. Since they know each other on a personal level, they’re able to communicate more effectively and, often, experience less stress as they work through difficult situations.

To foster strong social bonds, encourage employees to take their lunch breaks together, host quarterly social events like team dinners and volunteer events, encourage employees to form recreational sports teams and engage in other activities to spend time together.

 

6) Build mutual trust between employees and management

Research shows team performance is strongly associated with trust in leadership. Here are some proven ways to build trust with your team:

  • Use logic to drive your feedback and decisions. Knowledge workers are fact-driven and expect you to be too. Using a calm, practical leadership approach proves to your team that you’re fair and can be relied upon.
  • Show vulnerability. Though all of your decisions should be driven by logic, there are times when you’ll face challenges that impact your productivity. Being vulnerable in those moments creates a team culture where your employees know that it’s okay to go through temporary rough times.
  • Get to know your team and personalize their work experiences. Everyone wants to feel supported and valued at work. An easy way to do that is to get to know your team’s interests, goals, work preferences etc. so that you can take reasonable actions to accommodate their preferences.

 

At a Glance: Keys to Effective Performance Management

  1. Choose and define productivity metrics that take into account the goals your employees are trying to achieve and the challenges they face.
  2. Get employees onboard with your new productivity management system by being transparent about what factors you’re measuring and coaching them on how to succeed.
  3. Take actions to support the key drivers of knowledge worker productivity so that you can empower your team to excel.

About the author: Emily leads Prialto's content production and distribution team with a special passion for helping people realize success. Her work and collaborations have appeared in Entrepreneur, Inc. and the Observer among others. 

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