As a manager or leader, it’s your responsibility to help everyone on your team do more of their best work. This means coaching them to prioritize their work, giving them the insights they need to spend time wisely, and most of all, making sure you’re not getting in their way. Yet it’s easy to miss these steps.
Processes and tools get implemented in the name of productivity without knowing exactly what their effect will be. “Urgent” work gets piled on without guidance about what’s most important. And communication overload slows down the flow of meaningful work.
So, while employee time management might not be high on your list of management priorities, when it bridges the gap from a personal issue to a business one, it’s time 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.
Set clear expectations and timelines
When you dig into the kinds of time management issues most professionals 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 timelines aren’t clearly set
- 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.
The problem is that most work cultures celebrate “yes” people—those who are willing to pile on work without a grimace. And as workers, we’ve been trained that long hours and overwhelming workloads are an expectation.
It’s no wonder it can be so hard to know when employees are actually struggling. To start, look for some of the signs that your team is having time management issues. Things like:
- Suddenly missing deadlines
- Being unsure of deliverables during meetings (or not speaking up at all)
- A drop in performance
- Attending a lot of meetings or always being on calls
- Showing signs of stress or burnout
Sound familiar? If so, the first step you need to take is to make sure expectations, priorities, and timelines are clearly stated.
According to Bruce Tulgan, author of Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, this can be as easy as just asking whether they need any help from you or clarification on what the exact deliverables are.
Additionally, you might remind team members what their priorities are, or check in periodically to make sure nothing has creeped in to derail them from hitting their goals.
Help employees discover where their time is going
If employee time management issues have become team-wide, you might want to do a “time audit.” This involves our entire team tracking their time to see what they’re working on throughout the week.
This might seem like a simple ask, but it’s easy for employees to feel under-the-gun when asked to track how they spend their time. Be clear that this is an exercise to help them thrive and won’t affect their position at all.
(As a side note, RescueTime for Organizations let’s your team members track their computer usage in the background without sharing automatically to leadership. This gives them a more honest view of how they’re working without the worry that they are being constantly monitored.)
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 and your role?
- 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 hopefully uncover a few red flags, from which you can start to brainstorm some time management solutions.
For instance, if it comes up that a team member is unable to spend time on their most meaningful work due to constant interruptions, have them block out time for focused “heads down” work each day.
Or, if they’ve taken on too much and are missing deadlines, assign them some support to get caught up.
Teach employees to plan and estimate their time better
We all want to think we can finish work quickly. But unfortunately, one of the most common skill gaps knowledge workers have is being able to estimate how long a project will take. When deadlines start stacking it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, overworked, and start making bad time management choices.
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.
Author Bruce Tulgan explains that you can help solve this common employee time management issue by being more active in the planning process and breaking larger projects up into smaller chunks or deliverables.
“Have them make a plan, and then you’ve got to review the plan,” he says. This way you can help them understand where bottlenecks might occur in the process.
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?
Come up with an estimate of time for each section and block out time on their calendar. Then check in frequently.
Yes, it’s 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.
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 on your team, catch up on the progress that’s been made, 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 to have another meeting.
Meetings are just one example. There are many other systems you’ve put in place that get in the way of doing “real” work, such as 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.
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 is 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.
I’m sure you brought each process into your company with the best intentions. But how often do you really dig into their effectiveness? Take some time to see what you can do from an organizational level to make sure your team has time to do the work they were hired to do.
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 destroy 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 your team members are having trouble managing their time it might simply be because they’re on a manager’s schedule. Not only does this hinder making headway on bigger tasks, but the constant context switching, as we now know from research, prevents makers from fully engaging in the creative task at hand.
As Deep Work author Cal Newport explains, this isn’t an individual issue, but an organizational one as 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, there needs to be policies in place to protect their time and clear expectations around communication.
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 and enforcing specific days for maker time to simply changing your policy and culture around when to expect a response such as the newly passed “Right to Disconnect” Law in France, which requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails.
Time management isn’t just an individual issue. As a leaders, you have an opportunity to guide your team towards becoming more productive and confident workers. It means protecting their time and helping them do more of the work you hired them to do. While it might take a bit of an upfront investment in your own time, the return should be loud and clear.
What time management issues does your team regularly face? Have you found ways to help fix them? Let us know in the comments.