Team development: Are we so busy? We’re not achieving?

We all have odd days where we’re spinning so many plates that they all come crashing down to the floor. Often a night’s sleep is enough to put everything into perspective and the next day dawns full of promise and potential.

But what if that doesn’t happen? What if every day leaves us too busy to breathe? For many teams these days, “busy” is the new normal. They find themselves faced with constant change, diminishing resources (often being asked to do more with less), and an ever-increasing number of unexpected requests on a daily and weekly basis. More and more, we find ourselves working with overwhelmed employees who have lost their ability to be productive.

What happens when human brains become overwhelmed? Pretty much the same as they did tens of thousands of years ago. Faced with danger (yes, we are comparing too much work to an angry bear) our brains focus their efforts on survival, while our bodies prepare themselves to fight or take flight. We may feel like we’re still doing an awful lot and working hard, but the reality is that there’s a lot of flapping going on. As well that resulting in us not achieving much, it’s also exhausting.

So how can teams learn to work differently — slow down the pace and become more productive at the same time?

When we work with high-performance teams, they often describe weeks full of back-to-back meetings, an increased number of project and operational deliverables, and process and system changes. These things, which ought to be peripheral to employees’ core tasks, are fast becoming constant demands on their time. It’s easy to lose sight of business and personal goals when that happens.

One event management team we worked with talked about their “normal” pattern as being one of very busy times running events and quieter times when they could potentially take time for some personal rest and recuperation, as well as spending time on some longer-term business planning. 

This year, they have been in a constant state of “busy” running events with no “down time” and the impact on both them and the strategic direction of the business are not healthy ones. 

A common theme that came up in our conversations was that this high pace state is the “new normal”. Employees wondered how they were going to keep up, particularly as they all had very high expectations about the quality of their work and standards they wished to maintain.

 

Engineer good productivity practices into your team development plan

The event management story isn’t an uncommon one – and it’s one that leaders of teams need to address to keep their teams performing optimally. Here are some tips that might help teams and team leaders achieve balance in the workplace:

  • Build both self and team awareness on individual energy patterns and how to manage them.

    Do you focus better first thing in the morning or does it take you a while to get going? Does your concentration wander when you are hungry? It might be that when you take everyone’s quirks and foibles into account, the best time to hold a team meeting isn’t when you thought it was. 

    Of course, you may not always be able to accommodate everyone’s needs, so the team needs to communicate and compromise to find the best — but not perfect — solution. For sure though, if you’re a leader, scheduling meetings and work based just on your personal schedule won’t often get the best out of your team.

  • Identify how long you can genuinely concentrate before you need a break.

    It’s not uncommon for people to spend several hours on a piece of work, when a 15-20 min walk in the middle, to give their brains a chance to refresh, could result in the job being done much quicker and better. 

    If you’re a team leader, it helps to be proactive in encouraging your team members to take regular breaks, stay hydrated, and understand and respect their own boundaries and limitations.

  • Think about the length and frequency of team meetings.

    Are they genuinely productive or are they more of a comfortable habit? At the other end of the scale, are you trying to achieve too much when everyone gets together?

    Whatever the issue, narrowing your agenda down to three high-priority points will maintain focus and prevent people feeling overwhelmed and tuning out. Think of other ways to address the remaining agenda points.

    A team “scrum” — popular in software companies — gives people the chance to just focus on current roadblocks rather than anything medium or long term. Often no longer than 15 minutes, attendees don’t always bother to sit down!

  • Think about your “To Do” list in a different way.

    It’s easy to look at your to-do list and try to race through it as quickly as possible. If you haven’t prioritized your work in advance, top-priority items can nag away at you and distract you from what you’re doing. This builds stress and when stress levels are high, you often find it hard to focus & can forget to take the breaks you need.

    Scheduling tasks in your diary on a daily basis can help you be realistic about how much you can actually achieve in one day, and helps you focus on getting the task done without distractions. Scheduling in diary time for unexpected interruptions (we all have them every day) as well as break times to give your brain a rest, can really help to manage the feeling off overwhelm. And of course, team leaders should be encouraging their team members to do the same. Shared calendars can help here, as well as simply leading by example. 

  • Work on how you set priorities as a team.

    Often, we are so busy operating in silos, we fail to notice there’s someone else whose knowledge could help us achieve the task more quickly and accurately. It’s important to identify where the resource pressure points are in a team, and spot those who have the skills and bandwidth to step in and ease the load.

  • Don’t be afraid to renegotiate with stakeholders.

    If we are constantly being given more to do, but not flagging up that it’s a problem, then it’s no surprise when the workload starts to feel overwhelming. Often, just by letting someone else know that you now have multiple requests on your time, and renegotiating the deadline, you can bring the pressure down to an acceptable level.

 

Team leaders need to set the tone for high-performance teams

By embedding these kinds of behaviors into everyday task setting, the event management company was able to ensure that when times were busy everyone focused on the right things, planned realistically & took the breaks they needed to keep their energy productive.

Many managers forget, or don’t realize, that managing people IS the job — not a distraction. They play a vital role in enabling good productivity behaviors in their team. Managers need to lead by example, demonstrating the behaviors they want to see in their teams. They also need to make sure there’s time in their schedule for actually managing their people, and not just tackling the mountain of work themselves. Just expecting everyone to follow your example is unlikely to be enough.

Managers need to have proactive conversations with team members about their behavior – perhaps gently challenging them on whether working 50-hour weeks for two months straight is a good idea. Once those conversations start to happen – scheduled into the diary of course, not done on the fly – teams may be amazed at how more effective they become, while keeping their workloads under control.

About the author:

Julia joined Connor in 2015 and leads our People Development Center of Expertise, supporting our clients to develop the core attributes of career coaching services, human engagement and performance - mindset, behavior, communication and resilience. She works with our clients to identify how we can help their organisations to evolve and thrive through their people.