How to increase productivity in less time

The opportunity to make the world – or at least one small corner of it – a better place is what draws many people to the not-for-profit sector. Whether it involves making a difference in the area of climate change, youth, diversity, community, sport, health, animal welfare or something else, working in the NFP sector means having a strong sense of purpose. It means being heavily invested in the work.

If workers aren’t careful to draw clear personal boundaries, and if workplaces don’t have good policies in place to preserve work–life balance, that can lead to long hours, high stress levels and even burnout.

At the Institute of Community Directors Australia, one policy in place to help staff manage their work-life balance is the four-day week. All full-time staff work four days per week, not five, with no increase in daily hours and no reduction in pay. The policy has been an outstanding success in terms of company productivity and staff satisfaction. You can read more about it here.

Not every employer in Australia is willing or able to offer a four-day week. But there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the ICDA experiment that can be applied anywhere. Here are our tips for doing more work in less time. It’s a first step towards freeing up space for family, friends and fun away from work.

1. Check your meeting habits

Check the default setting for meeting length in your organisations calendar – it’s often 60 minutes. Can it be made shorter – 45 minutes or even 30 minutes? Then think about what will need to change about your meetings to actually make them shorter.

Here are some things to consider.

  • Check whether you really need to meet. Are you getting the team together at 10am on a Monday because that’s what you’ve always done, or because your Monday morning meetings have a clear and useful purpose?
  • Insist on an agenda. This can be very short – a list of key words will do. It’s the responsibility of the meeting organiser, who should share it with attendees. What would you like to take away from this meeting ? Is the aim to make a decision, to air considerations or to check on how a project is going and remove obstacles?
  • Be clear about the aim of the meeting. If the reason for the meeting is not to make a decision but to gather input from a group, consider whether it needs to be more than 30 minutes, and why you think that.
  • Try agile methodology. This calls for frequent “stand up” meetings of 15 minutes, which can save the need for longer meetings by speeding up your ability to solve problems. A stand-up meeting would ask attendees: What have you completed? What’s next? What are your obstacles (if any)? Avoid going over time– if you do, then you know you’re getting lost in the detail.
  • Invite the right people. Inviting people who are not in a position to contribute is a waste of their time and other people’s time. On the other hand, if you fail to invite key people, you might not be able to make the decisions you need to make, which could lead to more meetings.
  • Avoid post-meeting meetings. If someone fails to attend a meeting where decisions are made but insists on having their say afterwards, put your foot down (unless there’s a good reason for their non-attendance). Otherwise, the whole team’s time is wasted.
  • Respect the chair. Chairing meetings is not always easy. It’s important for the chair to have confidence that they can bring agenda items to a close, and pull the team out of the weeds when required. It’s also important that attendees demonstrate self-awareness, respecting the call of “Enough, let’s move on” and trying not to get off topic.
  • Discuss the change. Communicate openly about how meetings will be adapting to increase productivity.

2. Spring clean your inventory

Look at each product or service your organisation delivers and think about its purpose. Does it help financial sustainability, build the brand, or build output numbers? How does it align with the organisations strategic plan or theory of change?

Then consider these questions:

  • Are we keeping up with the times? Do you offer products or services that were innovative 10 years ago but no longer do what your organisations should be doing? sometimes, products we love are actually dragging down the organisation by using up valuable staff time or costing lot of money.
  • How would we manage the change? What would the process of ceasing these products or services look like? How long would it take? Which staff and customers would be affected and how would you communicate the changes to them?
  • What should we add? Are there products and services you should be creating to better serve your mission?
  • What are we charging. Have you reviewed your prices recently? Are you charging appropriately? A small price increase might cover the loss of income from products you stop offering.
  • Where can we save time? Think about the quality of your products. Are your newsletters too long, for example? Could you save time by making them shorter or publishing them less frequently while not compromising the essence of what you want to communicate or your relationships with your readers?

3. Be ruthless about processes

When we design a process or product, we do so with the skills we have at the time. It can take an outsider’s eye to ask: Why are you doing this in six steps? Here’s a way of doing it in one or two. When planning for productivity, we must be our own “outsider’s eye”.

  • Automate. What can be automated? Might AI have a role to play?
  • Streamline. Which processes have multiple touchpoints where you could aim to have just one?
  • Upskill. As soon as someone says “That’s not possible”, rise to the challenge. What training could be provided to upskill staff so they can build systems with fewer processes?
  • Cajole, challenge, “bribe”. Always challenge the status quo. Staff and board members who have been with you for a while are likely to protest that that’s the way it’s always been done. Offer a chocolate reward to the first person who says this in a meeting. It most likely won’t happen again.
  • Consolidate. Encourage people to avoid multitasking. Chunk similar tasks together (e.g. completing surveys, sending out meeting requests, writing emails) to free up other chunks of time for tasks that require more focus.
  • Template it. Do you find yourself sending similar communications to many different customers? These waste time. Consider writing a range of basic templates to re-use and adapt.

4. Technology

Technology doesn’t have to be expensive. Here are some tips on using it to save time, some of them free.

  • Automation. Consider what tasks you do regularly that you could automate. For example, there are survey tools available that send surveys and follow-ups automatically on the dates you set, rather than requiring a manual task each time.
  • Training. Does everyone know how to use the technology you’ve got to its maximum advantage, or could the team benefit from professional development, externally or inhouse? Do you have an Excel whiz within the team who can teach you all some hacks?
  • Artificial intelligence. For documents that don’t require your own creative flair, could you save time by using AI, at least as a starting point?
  • Investment. A small amount of investment in the right technology can save you many hours of staff time and ensure their time is used for thinking, creating, collaborating, building relationships with customers, etc.

5. Customer service

Do you find the same or similar questions and complaints arriving in your inbox day after day? If so, consider expanding your FAQs or initial communications to “over-communicate” the things that are confusing people.

Consider whether your sales or customer service process involves friction points (things that stand in the way of customers using your service) such as too many questions or buttons before people can book a program or buy a product. Think about how you can streamline how your customers engage with you, to reduce the number of questions in your inbox.

6. In-team communication and decision-making

Encourage your team to be thoughtful about who should be included in each interaction to ensure that everyone knows what they need to know, but nobody is pulled into conversations that waste their time. Lead by example.

Communication in a hybrid workplace often includes face-to-face meetings (one to one or in small groups), team meetings, email, and a messaging applications such as Slack or MS Teams. Using the wrong “channel” can waste time, cause unintended problems, and lead to poor decision making.

To prevent this, decide as a team which channel will most efficiently serve your team for:

  • Making decisions. This is most likely to be a face-to-face meeting because this enables all attendees to engage in real time and to consider alternative views and test them.
  • Sharing information that doesn’t require feedback. This is most likely to be Slack or email (whichever is preferred by the team). This does not require real-time engagement.
  • Consulting and gathering input. This will often be Slack, MS Teams or another messaging system. This allows people to input at any time throughout the day without clogging an inbox.
  • Asking a question that requires immediate attention, such as an urgent request for data. This is most likely to be Slack, MS Teams, or another messaging system.
  • Discussing or requesting feedback on longer documents. This is most likely to be email. This is often less immediate than a quick message on Slack, and requires more thoughtful and often longer responses from recipients.

7. Professional development

Do you find the same or similar questions and complaints arriving in your inbox day after day? If so, consider expanding your FAQs or initial communications to “over-communicate” the things that are confusing people.

Consider whether your sales or customer service process involves friction points (things that stand in the way of customers using your service) such as too many questions or buttons before people can book a program or buy a product. Think about how you can streamline how your customers engage with you, to reduce the number of questions in your inbox.

8. Work location

Consider how to ensure coverage of your services and customers while also allowing location flexibility to your team. Implementing a four-day work week might mean different people work on different days, or it might mean a closure on one day, whatever suits your business best.

Similarly, consider how hybrid working will work best for your organisation. Perhaps it’s ideal if people work in the office on the same days, or maybe different days are preferable.

Whatever the case, be intentional about the system you choose, and if it doesn’t work, change it.

Encourage staff to be considerate of their colleagues in relation to online meetings and working remotely. Some people prefer to avoid online meetings on days they have chosen to be in the office, so consider how to meet with them when you are all in the office together.

9. Induction

Increasing productivity is a journey, and you want the newest members of your community to feel confident walking that journey with you. Ensure that induction for new staff includes both written and verbal information about how your team communicates and works, because different people learn in different ways.

Ask new staff to give you the gift of their newness and share their observations and suggestions about productivity for the first few months – they will be invaluable. Even the question “Why do you do it like that?” can help longer-serving staff to reconsider the assumptions they hold and to think about whether systems can be improved.

10.Regular review

Consider productivity a journey rather than a destination. There is no perfect solution, and as our environment changes, so must we. We find new tools, hacks and advice every day. So when you think you’ve got it right, wait a few months and then do a quick review. Ask the team if there are bugbears and consider together how they might be improved.

When designing new systems, consider the unintended consequences of a variety of choices, aiming from the outset to design products and processes with productivity in mind. This is the same as trying to be your future self’s best friend. Consider how your products interconnect and think to the future – what else might you want to do?

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