As a manager or leader, it’s one of your core responsibilities to help your team do more of their best work. Whether this means coaching them to prioritize their work, helping them optimize their daily schedule, or (maybe ironically) making sure you’re not getting in their way.
Yet it’s too easy to do the exact opposite.
Regardless of your intentions, it’s easy to forget that everything you ask your team to do in the name of productivity—whether it’s to use a new tool, take on that “urgent” task, or attend tens of meetings a week to keep everyone up to speed—takes time.
As we’ve written in the past, we all assume we have more time than we do. So, while employee time management might not be high on your list of management priorities, inevitably it crosses over from a personal issue to a business one. And that’s when it’s up to you to start looking for solutions.
Let’s look at a few ways to tell if your employees are struggling with their time management and how you can help.
Employee time management: 5 ways to help your team manage their time better
1. Set clear expectations and timelines
When you dig into the kinds of employee time management issues most companies face, it’s clear they’re not always self-inflicted.
While writing his book, Master The Moment, Pat Burns interviewed employees at 50 companies and discovered that many of the time management issues employees face can be traced back to poor leadership, including:
- Not knowing what work to prioritize
- Having trouble saying no even when their workload is full
- Feeling overwhelmed with too many tasks
- Procrastinating or not finishing what they start because they didn’t make a clear timeline
- Always being in reactive mode due to an unclear strategy
Scan this list and you’ll see that most employee time management issues are really communication issues. Team members don’t know what tasks they should be working on, how they should be spending their time, or what they can and can’t say ‘no’ to.Many of the time management issues employees face can be traced back to poor leadership. Here are 5 ways you can help give your team back more time. Click To Tweet
There are a few ways you can help here.
First, you need to shift your cultural approach to ‘yes’ people. Most companies celebrate the people who ‘just get stuff done.’ You think they’re the hard workers or that they’ve got grit. In reality, they’re most likely overworked, stressed, and on the road to burnout.
Instead of celebrating these martyrs, look for the signs that they’re hitting a wall:
- Suddenly missing deadlines
- Being unsure of deliverables during meetings (or not speaking up at all)
- Not performing how they normally do
- Attending a lot of meetings or always being on calls
According to Bruce Tulgan, author of Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, all it takes to circumvent these employee time management issues is to observe and then talk. Do they need help from you? Are they clear on what the deliverables are? Do they need to change the scope of their projects?
Give them permission to tell you where your expectations don’t match their reality. This isn’t a failure on anyone’s part. But a way to continue the conversation around how they can do their best work.
Once you’ve gotten clear on expectations, make a timeline for how you’ll continue to check in and see if things are moving in the right direction.
2. Help employees discover where their time is going with a time audit
Talk to your team and most people will think they have 7–8 hours a day to do their core work. Unfortunately, according to our research, the majority of our workday goes to other tasks like email, IM, meetings, and admin.
Knowing this is the case, it can be an incredibly valuable tool to be able to show your team where their time is going every day. One way to do this is with what’s called a time audit.
This involves your team writing down their intentions and beliefs about how they spend their time and then actually tracking how they work. In most cases, the difference between intentions and actions will be staggering.
Worse, it’s easy (and understandable) for employees to feel under-the-gun when asked to track their time at work. As you go into it, be clear on how this is an exercise to help them and won’t affect their position at all.
Once you’ve collected enough data, sit down with each team member and ask a few key questions:
- How well is your time aligned with the work that matters most to you?
- What gets in the way of spending time on your priorities?
- What tasks took more time than you thought they would?
- Which ones took less time than you anticipated?
- How well are you able to use small pockets of time? Do you work better when you have long periods of distraction-free time to focus on tasks?
This conversation should uncover a few red flags. Maybe they simply have too much on their plate and need to delegate. Or maybe they’re unable to spend time on their most meaningful work due to constant interruptions or meetings, and need to block out some focused, ‘heads down’ time each day.
Think of it like working out or dieting. First, you identify where your actions are going against your goals, and then you adjust.
3. Teach your team to plan and estimate their time better
No matter how quickly you think you can finish a task, it’s going to take you longer than you think.
Psychologists call this the Planning fallacy—when you make a plan for how long a task or project will take (which is usually a best-case scenario), and then assume the outcome will follow your plans, even when you know better.
I’m sure you’ve fallen into this trap yourself. However, it’s even worse for your team members who have the added pressure to not fail or disappoint you.
While a time audit helps your team understand what gets in the way during the workday, you also need to help them spend what time they do have more wisely.
Start by being more active in the planning process and breaking larger projects up into smaller chunks or deliverables. As a leader, you have insight into certain things they don’t. Such as:
- Have they thought about what they’ll need from other departments or how long research or gathering resources will take?
- Are they being realistic about how long a milestone will take to achieve?
- Can they be held accountable to this timeline?
Yes, this is a bigger time commitment for you. But you’re investing in someone who will be able to manage their time more accurately and efficiently moving forward.
4. Ask if the systems you’ve put in place are helping or hurting their productivity
Not all employee time management issues are the employee’s fault.
In fact, many of the systems or processes put in place to help productivity and time management in the workplace can actually hurt it.
Think about the humble weekly team meeting.
On the surface, these meetings are a great place to update everyone, catch up on a project’s progress, and create an environment of knowledge sharing. However, even with such good intentions, meetings often rarely work out that way.
Instead, they become a crutch for answering the question “What do we do now?” When a complex problem arises, the knee-jerk reaction is to call a meeting to discuss rather than have team members waste time not knowing what to do.
Too many meetings break up time for focused work. They often lack a well-thought-out agenda, leaving it unclear how people are expected to contribute. And in the end, the follow-on action is usually just to have another meeting!
Meetings are just one example of good intentions gone awry. There’s also your documentation policy, project management process, or even your choice of communication tool.
When researchers Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen, interviewed knowledge workers across 45 different companies, they found that most were spending 30% of their time on desk work (basic, repeatable tasks like admin) with another 40% on communication.Want to know the true cost of all your meetings and emails? Most knowledge workers have just 30% of their day set aside for meaningful work. Click To Tweet
This leaves only 30%, or 2.5 hours a day, to do meaningful work.
To combat all this wasted time, the researchers asked employees to do a simple exercise:
- Look at your calendar over the next 2 weeks and identify activities (meetings, tasks, calls, etc…) that you can most easily get out of. This could mean dropping, delegating, or outsourcing it.
- Create a log of those activities listing what you targeted, why it was chosen, how you’re actually going to get out of it, and most importantly, what you’re going to do with that freed up time.
- At the end of each week, go back over your log and track what happened to that activity, how much time you saved, and what you did instead.
At the end of the 2 weeks, most people had reclaimed more than 8 hours a week of meaningful work.
5. Build policies that protect ‘maker’ time
As a manager, you’re probably used to putting out fires or dealing with issues as they come up. However, for people who spend their days on heads down or creative work like writing, coding, or designing, these sorts of interruptions can completely derail their day.
Y Combinator found Paul Graham calls this “Manager time” vs “Maker time”:
“The manager’s schedule is…embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour…”
“…But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”
If you’re facing serious employee time management issues, it might simply be because they’re on a manager’s schedule.
Not only does this make it hard to see progress on bigger tasks (one of the best ways to keep people motivated), but constant context switching prevents makers from fully engaging in their creative tasks.
As Deep Work author Cal Newport explains, this isn’t an individual issue, but an organizational one. In fact, almost no companies support the maker schedule:
“The reasons for this reality are straightforward: (a) distractions like constant messaging and frequent meetings are often convenient in the moment for the person instigating them; (b) most organizations place no barriers around such behaviors; (c) without these barriers, convenience will almost always win.”
Communication is key to your organization’s growth and success. But it can also just as easily get in the way of getting real work done. If you want to help your team do their best work, you need to put policies in place to protect their time. (Read our Guide to Communication Debt to learn more).
As Zapier CTO and co-founder Bryan Helmig explains when talking about how to hire a remote engineering team, you need to find the balance between regular communication (for building company culture) and heads-down time (for connecting to the company’s purpose).
This could be anything from setting aside specific days for maker time or changing your policy and culture around when to expect a response. For inspiration, check out the newly passed “Right to Disconnect” Law in France, which requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff are not allowed to send or answer emails.
Time management isn’t just an individual issue.
As leaders, you have an opportunity to guide your team towards becoming more productive and confident workers. And while it might take an upfront investment of your own time, the return is more than worth it.