Employees 101: Increase Productivity in the Workplace

The exodus of employees from poorly run companies is a very old story—probably older than the story of the Exodus itself. In the Bible, the tale of The Exodus begins with an account of a poorly-managed construction project. The workers’ supply of straw used to make bricks was cut off, but their quota of bricks remained the same. As a result, they had to scrounge for straw to make up the difference. It wasn’t long before disgruntled workers got tired of doing more with less, and it ultimately resulted in a host of plagues—not exactly the optimal outcome.

A Tale of Productivity and Morale

Today’s economy may not be based on forced manual labor, but if you want to increase productivity, keeping your workers happy is still a best practice. People who feel demeaned or punished at work lose motivation or become motivated by fear, worried that they will lose their income, employment, insurance, or co-workers’ company. People who feel comfortable at work tend to be productive and add to the job satisfaction of their co-workers.

It’s no secret that productive employees bring value to a company. Here are five tips for creating a company culture that encourages productivity in the workplace, as well as a case study that demonstrates these principles in action.

1. Rethink Accountability and Responsibility

Think about how often you hear people use the words accountability and responsibility in contexts like, “We need to hold employees accountable.” But there’s another part to each word: ability. Emphasize the employees’ ability to give an account of what they’ve done for the company and their ability to respond to customers’ wants and needs.

Emphasizing ability will increase productivity in several ways. Employees who only hear the words accountability and responsibility when they’re being called to account or held responsible for a mistake causes them to associate those words with unpleasantness or punishment. Emphasizing ability increases a worker’s sense of ownership for a situation.

The ability to take ownership of a problem or task and resolve it also leads to greater customer satisfaction. Consider how this makes a difference in customer-service settings, with their heavy emphasis on first-contact problem resolution. Customers who get handed from one rep to another to another are usually pretty unhappy with the customer service they received. Empowering employees to deal with customer-service issues themselves enables them to feel a positive sense of responsibility for their work and also tends to result in a better experience for the customer.

Paradoxically, the customer-service reps who are most effective are not always the most “productive” if productivity is measured by call length or number of calls taken. This contributes to an annual turnover rate of 30-45 percent or higher in call centers; by contrast, the turnover rate in 2013 for all industries was only 15.1 percent—2–3 times lower than their call-center counterparts.

Enabling workers to give an account of their accomplishments rather than requiring them to defend the amount of time a project takes can help a company find ways to measure aspects of productivity that are otherwise hard to quantify. For example, the goodwill of satisfied customers is difficult to measure if they don’t leave reviews.

2. Provide Opportunities for Workers to Expand Their Skills

Cross-training is a great way for employees to expand their skills and avoid “rising to the level of incompetence” (being promoted based solely on their performance in their current position without consideration for their ability—or lack thereof—to perform the duties required by the promotion) and getting stuck there, as was famously described in The Peter Principle. Cross-training can be especially valuable when your workers are training each other; this approach may reveal skills you didn’t know your workers had, skills that can bring value and increased productivity to the company. Cross-training can also foster teamwork by showing how the different parts of the company fit together.

3. Foster Teamwork

While it may be fun to watch people outwit, outplay, and outlast each other on TV, no one comes to work to get voted off the island, sent home without a rose, or hear the words, “you’re fired.” Competition and backstabbing among employees can tear a workplace apart. If you must have competition in the office, make sure it’s in the spirit of the in-state college football rivals who set out to see whose fans can donate the most to local food banks in the week leading up to the big game.

One aspect of teamwork is narrative. Remember all those story problems from grade-school math? Stories are a powerful way to learn and teach. Employees who tell stories about best practices, accomplishments, and challenges can teach and encourage their colleagues and shape team and company culture.

4. Use Gamification

In The Last Lecture, the dying computer scientist Randy Pausch told about wanting to encourage girls (middle-school aged and younger) to learn coding skills, so he developed a gaming platform called Alice. The girls thought they were only playing a game, but they were also learning valuable skills. Journalist John Boitnott believes game elements can similarly be used with adults “to make repetitive and quantifiable tasks more engaging,” and points to GameEffective as an efficient platform.

5. Invest In The Right Equipment

The right equipment includes furniture that’s comfortable to use, computers or other electronic devices that allow employees to collect information and produce the products their customers ask for, and effective means to access that information. The right equipment also includes productivity tools that foster collaboration and teamwork.

6. Suggest Goals and Provide Incentives

As important as goals and incentives are in laying out and reaching a business’ objectives, you need to proceed with caution. Imposed goals can be motivation killers. Employees often find working with their leaders to define progress and productivity much more satisfying. Similarly, an incentive that is too hard to reach is no incentive at all.

The world of Medicare insurance provides a good lesson on incentives. Medicare rates Medicare Advantage and drug plans annually on a 5-Star scale. If a plan has a 2.5-Star rating for two years in a row, Medicare flags it as an underperforming plan. If it ranks at 2 stars or lower, Medicare advises people to choose a different plan. A 5-star plan can enroll year-round, not just during the annual enrollment period.

There are very few 5-Star plans. A 5-Star rating is difficult to get and keep, and some large insurers feel the incentive is not worth the trouble. That may sound like a failed incentive system but it has worked to raise the quality of Medicare plans, and there’s no penalty related to achieving a 4.5- or even a 3-Star rating.

Case in Point

When measuring productivity, it’s important to measure the right things and remember that there are more important things than pure “productivity.” Consider another example from health insurance: Medicare strictly prohibits absolute superlatives, so not only is an agent prohibited from saying, “This is the best plan for you,” the agent is also not permitted to say, “Yes” if you specifically ask, “Is this the best plan for me?”

This can be disconcerting to people who are used to hearing the word best a hundred times a day on TV and radio, and they may think the agent is being indecisive by not using it. To combat this perception, agents are trained to speak confidently, ask customers about their needs, and present a plan according to how well it meets those needs.

Productivity in this setting isn’t measured by the size of a commission earned, the number of people enrolled, or how long it took to make the sale—it’s measured by how well the plan meets the customer’s needs and their level of satisfaction.

And there’s another thing: If the customer shows signs of confusion, doesn’t understand the presentation, or indicates incompetence to make a decision, the agent must either walk away from the sale or put it on hold until the customer can get a trusted friend or family member to help them make the decision.

Walking away from a sale may seem counterproductive, but surely it’s better business to let a few profits go than to open fake, unauthorized accounts in customers’ names, or charge them for insurance they don’t need—and get slammed with a $1 billion fine.

Employees who are empowered by policy to do what they feel is best for the customer is a lot better for job satisfaction than encouraging employees to bring in the greatest commission at any cost. Satisfied employees are more productive, and productivity is good for the bottom line—not only in the short term but in the long run as well.

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About the Author


CMOE’s Design Team is comprised of individuals with diverse and complementary strengths, talents, education, and experience who have come together to bring a unique service to CMOE’s clients. Our team has a rich depth of knowledge, holding advanced degrees in areas such as business management, psychology, communication, human resource management, organizational development, and sociology.