Josh sat down at his desk holding a hot cup of coffee.
“Are you sure you want to drink that?” Harriet asked. “It’s 6:00 pm, that would keep me up all night.”
“That’s exactly the plan, my friend. Tonight’s going to be a late one. And the same goes for the rest of the week.”
“Deadline” he nods. “There’s a bug in one of the apps and we’re launching a new product at the end of the week. So, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Alright, give me three hours. I need to pick the kids up from my Mum’s and I’ll log back in to help once I get them to bed. In the meantime, go get some fresh air and put that coffee down.”
I’m not a big proponent of “busy” work schedules. In fact, I’ve previously explained how doing nothing at all can lead to better results.
It’s critical that leaders implement systems and cultures that value downtime and allow for sustainable progress to be made, without leading workers to burnout.
But I’m also realistic. There will be times when being stretched to full capacity is inevitable.
Maybe there’s an issue with a client, or a product requires urgent attention, or there’s a tight deadline to meet and you underestimated the time and resources you would need.
Ideally, these situations will be rare. But the problem with their rarity is, the company’s systems and culture fail to account for them. Leaders are often unprepared to ease people through them smoothly.
The reason there aren’t any systems designed to make these periods sustainable, is: they don’t need to be — they’re temporary.
And by the time these circumstances come about, everyone’s too busy getting the work done to stop and prioritize how to preserve team morale.
At Jotform, everyone is encouraged to take vacations and we all stick to normal work hours. Our annual launch week is the exception. And keeping people’s spirits high during this especially busy week is a central priority.
Too much stress reduces productivity, whilst increased satisfaction leads to increased productivity. And whilst the occasional stressful-busy period might not be a company-wide event, individual teams could be affected at any given time.
So, it’s important for a company’s norms, systems and culture to account for these. Because productivity isn’t an accident.
“The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration.” — Thomas A. Edison
Since founding Jotform back in 2006, I’ve learned a few techniques to help ease employees through these momentary waves of heavy workload.
Schedule your days as half-day-chunks
Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham wrote about the difference between a “manager’s schedule” and a “maker’s schedule.”
The manager’s schedule is for bosses who have supervisory responsibilities, are in and out of meetings all day, and change what they’re doing every hour or two.
The maker’s schedule is common among people like programmers and writers. These people tend to schedule their days in half-day-chunks, because they need an extended period to focus on the thing they’re making.
When you’re busy working on a tight schedule, the most important thing you need to be doing is executing. The thing you’re working on is top priority. You need to ignore everything else and focus. You’re in “maker” mode.
To make consistent progress during particularly busy periods, identify the time of day during which you’re most alert and productive, and ruthlessly block that time off from distractions.
If you’re most productive in the mornings, for example, leave any e-mails, calls, meetings, or smaller tasks for the afternoon. These can destroy productivity if you’re working on completing a maker’s task. Use your prime time to execute on your priority task.
You’re likely to find you can complete it much quicker and to a higher standard than you would have had you worked to complete it in hourly chunks throughout the day.
Don’t expect to stick to your usual schedule under unusual circumstances
We’re all creatures of habit. Processes, plans, and schedules are great tools that give us a sense of direction; they bring a level of certainty to an otherwise uncertain reality.
So, it makes sense, especially during stressful and busy periods, that we rely on these tools as sources of comfort.
But doing so rigidly could stifle your productivity; the processes, plans, and the schedules that work usually, might not work so well under unusual circumstances.
At Jotform, our flex time policy gives everyone the option to come in earlier or later. We want people to come to work when they’re feeling most productive.
If I come to work feeling uninspired, rather than force myself to sit at my desk and work my way down the day’s to-do list, because “that was the plan,” I do something else.
If the words for an article aren’t coming to me, for example, I decide to read a book, watch a lecture, or meet with a product team.
Engaging my brain in these different ways soon triggers ideas that inspire me to get back to the task at hand.
Following my original plan for the sake of sticking to schedule would have set me back. Feeling engaged and inspired by my new ideas, I’m more likely to write a higher quality article in less time than I would have if I had forced myself to sit at my desk.
Ruthlessly avoid anything that falls outside your focus areas
Saying “no” to a colleague or a manager is no easy feat. It’s awkward, it’s selfish, it’s uncooperative. But it’s also crucial for the company’s productivity. So, as a leader, I make a point to lead by example on this one.
According to the Information Overload Research Group, US knowledge workers spend 25% of their time managing data streams. The average worker receives 121 emails a day, and spends 35–50% of their time in meetings, 67% of which are considered pointless by executives.
These constant distractions cost almost 1 trillion dollars annually. They stifle everyone’s productivity, mine included.
So, I’ve made my commitment to Inbox Zero apparent to employees. Everyone knows I don’t check my inbox until the end of the day, so they know not to expect an immediate response. They’ll get a response within 24 working hours.
I encourage everyone to show the same respect for their own and their peers’ time. This includes disabling all notifications across their devices, avoid scheduling unnecessary meetings, and using the company’s Slack only when an issue is urgent.
It’s something I encourage at all times. Because whilst busy weeks aren’t always company-wide, individual teams could be feeling the pressure at any given moment. During these times especially, acknowledging their time is particularly precious and respecting their priorities is key.
Provide teams with their own physical spaces
Teamwork is a great way to enhance motivation. A happy and energized team encourages each other to continuously improve and persevere. Teammates provide the much-needed support you need to get through the odd tough week.
The last thing they need when they’re working to meet a tight deadline, are distractions. Beyond the digital, you want to avoid their exposure to hallway chatter, the music playing from a neighbour’s headphones, or abrupt and irrelevant questions posed by colleagues passing by.
At Jotform, we give our teams their own physical spaces. They each have their own room, behind a closed door, with all the productivity tools they need to get to work.
It helps them focus on the task at hand, and it’s also a great way to improve communications between them. Their attention is centred on the same collective mission; they’re all talking about the same thing, free from external interference.
Allow teams to take ownership
Our employees work in cross-functional teams. They’re each like a mini company, empowered to work flexibly and independently.
Too much time is often wasted deliberating on the best decision to make. But sometimes a bad decision is better than a delayed decision, or no decision at all.
So, I try to make fast choices and I encourage my teams to do the same, even if it could turn out to be a bad decision. Anything else would stifle their progress.
The ability to innovate is a huge competitive advantage for any business in any industry. Yet even those who aspire to be innovative often have outdated company structures, cluttered with unnecessary rules and checkpoints that overcomplicate decision making and stunt progress.
At Jotform, respecting our teams’ time includes eliminating bureaucracy. People are encouraged to make independent decisions and take ownership over their own work.
Plus, when you empower teams with ownership, the sense of reward on completion of a project is greater. They know it’s something they built, with little to no assistance, from beginning to end.
Working long hours is never desirable. It’s not only bad for employees, it’s also bad for companies.
Hence why everyone at Jotform is encouraged to avoid it.
But admittedly, there will be times when you find yourself with your back against the wall. There’s no way about it, something just needs to get done.
However short-lived and anomalous these situations may be, you can’t let wellbeing and morale fall to the backdrop.
Productivity is key. And it doesn’t happen by accident.