4,278 words ~ 13 min read
Boost team productivity
Why team-building exercises won't make your staff more productive
Common sense tells us that happy, collaborative teams are productive teams.
Research backs it up, too.
But when leaders or managers utter the words “team-building,” most people want to run for the nearest exit. Visions of cheesy bonding exercises and trust-building games can induce a collective bout of nausea.
Fifteen years after launching Jotform, I’ve learned to take a different approach.
Instead of worrying about how to optimize our teams, I want to nurture them.
What do they need in order to thrive?
How can we help them to grow?
In essence, I think of our multi-functional teams as living, breathing beings.
Yes, they are a collection of diverse and talented individuals. But at their best, they also operate like a single body. And just like plants, animals and people, teams have several basic needs.
Some team-building exercises can be useful but they won’t make your team more productive unless you nurture these five basics:
Developers often joke about running on pizza and coffee, but creative teams ultimately need exciting problems to solve.
They need a reason to stretch and strive for innovation. That’s their fuel.
In a Harvard Business Review article about leading creative employees, authors Richard Florida and Jim Goodnight explain that …
“… creative people work for the love of a challenge. They crave the feeling of accomplishment that comes from cracking a riddle, be it technological, artistic, social, or logistical. They want to do good work.”
They also cite a major Information Week survey that showed “challenging work” ranks considerably higher than even “salary” and other financial rewards as people’s top source of on-the-job motivation.
Your teams are eager to flex their creative and strategic muscles. Feed them tough challenges and watch them thrive.
Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to literally feed them well, too. We have fully-stocked kitchens with a wide array of snacks, drinks and treats.
Recently, we’ve also brought in a chef who makes huge salads (with oil from my family’s olive trees). Everyone loves them, and we’re all learning that lots of fresh vegetables = no post-lunch crash.
View from the top of an olive tree on my family’s hometown.
Hovering and micromanagement don’t encourage meaningful growth.
We give our teams a lot of independence. They can make decisions without constantly seeking approvals.
We need our awesome staff to keep moving. We trust them, and they return that trust with smart, consistent work.
As Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace write in Creativity, Inc., which takes readers inside the wildly successful Pixar Animation Studios:
“The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world. Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear.”
“Fear” might seem like an odd word to use in a professional context, but creative endeavors are never easy.
There’s fear of failure, of success, of being unable to find the right solution, and the fear of letting down your team or your boss — just for starters.
I love the idea that trust is an antidote to fear. It builds confidence, for both individuals and teams, which usually translates into higher productivity and hopefully, more satisfaction.
Giving employees full independence is just one way that we try to demonstrate (and earn) trust.
Humans crawl before they walk. Every aspect of our growth, learning and development takes time.
Teams also need uninterrupted stretches of time. They can’t have calendars jammed with meetings.
Developers, designers, writers, and anyone who’s doing creative work needs a maker’s schedule — at least for most of the week.
For individuals, flexible schedules can also make people more productive.
If someone has a long commute to the office, for example, they’re welcome to work at off-peak hours — as long as they spend the majority of the day with their team.
There are three other ways that we think about time and productivity:
- Focus. Every team works on one project at a time. They identify it, tackle the problem, release what they’ve created, test and improve, and then they move on. This singular focus provides structure and builds momentum. It can also crush that sinking feeling that you’ve been busy, but you don’t have much to show for it.
- Low churn. I’m proud and grateful to say that most people stay with our company for a long time. Long-term employees get used to how we work. They know the culture, and they know what to expect. That makes them more productive. And while some experts believe comfort is a form of stagnation, I disagree. I want our staff to feel safe and comfortable. I want them to know that they can talk openly about their ideas and share tough feedback without fear of being shunned or ridiculed.
- Growth and learning. One of our key employees started out on the support team. He was a smart, capable person, but he didn’t have much experience. He stayed in support for a year, then moved to the growth team as a UI developer. He learned fast and contributed a lot. A year later, he joined one of our top product teams. He’s creative, productive, and he knows Jotform better than almost everyone. We all respect his deep product knowledge. That kind of understanding takes time, and I think it’s often undervalued.
In our offices, each cross-functional team has its own room, with whiteboards, big desks, space to stretch out, and doors that close. It’s amazing how much these rooms have increased their productivity.
They can bat ideas around and collaborate informally. I realize that not every company has this luxury — especially if you’re just starting out — but if you can give individual teams a designated space, it’s worth the investment.
Space is also a multi-dimensional concept. In the book, Fired Up: Kindling and Keeping the Spark in Creative Teams, author Dr. Andrew Johnston says:
“If you want to fire up your team, you’ve got to give them room to breathe. You need to loosen the physical and emotional constraints that hold them back and hem them in.”
This is great advice. Even when people want to grow and learn and contribute, hidden obstacles can hold them back.
These could be anything from a dysfunctional working relationship to status meetings that waste precious time.
Give your teams the gift of space, in whatever form that requires. And if you’re not sure what kind of space they need, ask. Be direct.
In a supportive environment, most people will be happy to tell you what they need.
Normal human body temperature varies from 97 to 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’ve ever had a fever (or worse, hypothermia), you know how awful it feels to exceed that perfect range.
Groups also have their sweet spot. We know that friendly, trusting teams work more productively.
But warmth can also be about giving people a mission. Introducing obstacles and encouraging them to work together in order to overcome big challenges. At Jotform, I believe we do have lots of juicy problems to tackle. But sometimes we have to provide a bigger creative spark.
That’s when we fan the flames with hack weeks. These five-day sprints allow our product teams to focus on one exciting problem or idea, while setting aside their day-to-day tasks.
Hack weeks have led to some our best innovations, including the biggest release in our 15-year history.
So, how could you warm up your teams and inspire them to grow? What would accelerate their productivity and their innovation?
I encourage you to think about these questions with intention and creativity. Consider how you can truly nurture your teams. I promise it will be time well spent.
After all, fostering a healthy, productive work culture won’t happen overnight — but it will have a major impact on your company.
No cheesy bonding exercises or trust-building games required.
What really lies behind a productive workplace
It was Arthur’s dream job.
Yet, lately, it had been feeling more like a nightmare.
It all began after a few weeks of working late nights, which turned into him missing his daughter’s ballet recitals.
At first, he shrugged these long hours and constant absences from home off as simply part of choosing such a competitive career.
Every time he questioned whether or not he should reconsider his career, he would immediately smash the thought — reminding himself that if he could just last for one more year, he’d be up for partner.
Then, things started to spiral. As he noticed the bond with his children deteriorate and the relationship with his wife become both strained and distant, problems at home started to negatively impact his work.
He started pinning the blame on his firm and these bottled-up feelings of animosity made him short-tempered and downright mean to the rest of his team.
As his frustration grew hotter, he noticed he wasn’t entirely present during meetings and was searching for every possible excuse to avoid doing his work — the work he had always been so incredibly passionate about.
A few Google searches made it obvious that he had been bitten by a nasty snake known as burnout. It wasn’t terminal but it was certainly something that couldn’t be cured with a pill or antidote.
If Arthur was going to reclaim his life and the work he was once passionate about, he would have to dig deep and make some serious changes both in himself and in his working environment.
The snake in the room.
While the phrase the elephant in the room is commonly used to describe a big problem that nobody wants to address — the problem of burnout deserves an alternative metaphor — the snake in the room.
Every office across the world suffers from the snake in the room to varying degrees.
Some companies’ snake is ultra-aggressive and will hiss and bite at anything that comes within arm’s reach. Then, there are others that have figured out ways to tame their snake… somehow.
When you visualize the 30 person conference room table, the snake lives its slithering existence in the middle of it. While everybody sees it, nobody says anything. On occasion, the snake will lash out at someone and strike.
It bit Sue last month, Rick the month before that and oh crap Sandy looks like she has just been bitten too.
We can’t necessarily see it when it will strike (burnout is complicated in that way), but we can see the snake’s venom do its work.
The victim becomes quiet, short-tempered, unmotivated, uninvolved and lackadaisical.
Some people who’ve been bitten, don’t realize they’ve been bitten. Other people know something is wrong but try and ignore it. And, then, there are folks who just shut down entirely.
We need to talk more about burnout
That’s how the percentage of American and Canadian office workers who experience burnout according to a study published in 2016.
The surveyed respondents claimed heavy workloads, constant pressure, and crazy deadlines as a handful of reasons.
While I am by no means a physician, I wanted to share two tactics I use to prevent burnout from sinking its fangs into myself and my team over at Jotform.
Setting hard stops in your life.
We’ve grown to subconsciously measure a person’s worth based off how many hours they work, how much is on their plate and put simply — whether or not they are running around like a chicken with their head cut off.
With nearly 30% of employees working between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., as well as on the weekends, one thing is glaringly obvious — workers need to start setting hard stops in their workdays.
Over the past couple of decades, the entrepreneur and the startup have become more than a career and a business… but a lifestyle.
And, in many ways, a religion.
The world as a whole now measures value in terms of busyness versus quality of work. In many ways, it has become something of a status symbol to be “busy”.
In “The power of doing nothing at all”, I wrote about the hidden power of making time in your life to do nothing. It can be challenging — especially during the work week where we are constantly pummeled and bombarded with meetings, notifications and an ever-growing list of tasks.
Busy founders have started implementing “Think Weeks” into their annual schedules — week long periods they spend reflecting, reading, thinking and living outside the all-encapsulating world that is running a business.
You don’t necessarily have to ban family and friends to retreat into a Think Week, though. Take me as an example.
Every year, I take at least a full week off from my company and head back to my hometown to help my parents with the olive harvest.
And for someone who can’t take an entire week off of work once a year to do nothing, I recommend taking a slightly different approach — embracing the digital sabbath — I explained in detail here.
Setting hard stops in your workday.
The “setting hard stops” approach should be applied to your workday as well.
It’s now frowned upon for employees to work only 40 hours a week and is viewed as them doing the bare minimum — instead, it’s expected they work 50, 60 and even 70 hours-weeks if they truly “believe” in the company and its mission.
Most people might consider this unacceptable — especially if you’re looking to create a burnout free work environment.
Countless scientific studies point to the same number when it comes to doing creative or complicated work that requires deep critical thinking — four hours.
No, this doesn’t mean every company in the world should start cutting their office hours down to 20 per week — but it does mean we shouldn’t be encouraging our employees to go over 40.
When you’re self-employed, finding these hard stops can be increasingly challenging — especially when you take into consideration that it has become less a career and more a 24/7 lifestyle.
But, you running your own business doesn’t let you off the hook either.
Ditching email and Slack after a specific time (perhaps 5 p.m.) or deleting the apps from your smartphone might obviously help you to set hard stops during your workdays.
You might also consider leaving your work laptop at work — this is a proactive way not to bring work home with you.
This, however, might lead to significant resistance and tension within your organization. If this is the case, the following insight can help:
Create a happier, healthier and more comfortable work environment.
Leaving work at work is only half the battle.
While you’re at work, you need to figure out a way to bring back a sense of happiness and comfortability that you somehow lost somewhere along the way.
At Jotform, we have flexible hours for our employees. Everybody works differently and every person has a different internal prime time.
Those that like to sleep in and start their days later are more than welcome to come in later in the day.
And the early birds that get the most done in the morning can come in early while the office is still quiet.
This is just one example of how a workplace can create a happier, healthier and more comfortable work environment without spending thousands on ping-pong tables, cereal bars and kombucha on tap.
It’s also important for employees to speak up and be open with their higher-ups and their teams on how they work best. Organizations are often more flexible than we give them credit for. But, employees have to be willing to ask.
If you’re somebody that enjoys working from home a couple days a week — ask.
If you work better when you’re fitting yoga into your day — ask.
If you want to work at a coffee shop one day a week — ask.
The bottom line is, in a results-driven world plagued by extreme hours, demanding workloads and stiff competition leaves one to wonder if our race to productivity isn’t a race to the bottom — or rather a race to see who can run the furthest without burning out.
While the mainstream media celebrates the 80-hour hustle and encourages employees to sacrifice their personal time, energy and well-being for an organization… it’s not a sane way to build a sustainable business.
It isn’t productive. There is nothing productive about a workplace filled with a burnout workforce.
How our +300 employees stay productive, motivated and happy
It was one month before the 1992 Summer Olympics.
The U.S. had assembled the most epic men’s basketball squad in the country’s history, appropriately dubbed “The Dream Team.”
The roster included superstars like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and Karl Malone.
Sports fans and journalists expected them to easily dribble and dunk their way to the gold medal — and eventually, they did just that.
But on June 24, 1992, during a practice game in San Diego, the Dream Team lost to a group of college players. The final score was 62–54.
As college power forward Chris Webber told reporters before the scrimmage, “I’m not going to be intimidated.”
Webber and his teammates played with grit and determination. They also gave the Dream Team a much-needed wakeup call before the Olympics began.
But most importantly, this story shows how a cohesive, motivated team can overcome incredible obstacles — including 12 of the world’s most talented basketball stars.
How to boost team motivation
“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”- Michael Jordan
Skills and motivation are vastly different. You can have incredible abilities, but still lack the drive (or the systems) to create results.
Working in a team, however, can dramatically enhance motivation. A healthy, happy team will push each other to new heights. And over time, the team will amplify each individual’s talent. That’s where the magic happens.
At Jotform, our employees work in small, cross-functional teams. I believe that singular focus is a big part of our success.
And it might sound simple, but when teams are in sync, they spur each other into action. They motivate each other and make smart decisions.
Great decisions produce great results, and then the cycle continues — in the best way possible.
I’m always learning more about how to help our teams fly. But when it comes to group motivation, here’s what I know for sure:
1. Give them space and freedom
The Information Overload Research Group reports that U.S. knowledge workers spend 25% of their time managing data streams.
Distraction is a major obstacle for productive work.
From social media to IMs to emails and text messages, that means most people spend a quarter of their day dealing with irrelevant information.
As we all know, it can be incredibly difficult to focus on what matters — and technology often makes it worse. You know the drill: someone asks a question or pings you with an update and before you know it, your brain is totally off track.
In addition to lost time, the IOR Group estimates that distraction costs U.S. companies almost $1 trillion dollars annually.
That’s a head-spinning amount of cash. But, I think lost opportunities are the bigger issue. Imagine what we could all build and create if we took back that 25% of the day.
Ultimately, there are many different ways to manage digital distractions. Getting into flow, muting Slack messages, and keeping your phone in a drawer are just a few small ways to regain mental space.
We also give our teams their own physical spaces. Each group has its own room, with a door that closes, plus big white boards and productivity tools.
I’ve learned that when teams collaborate in the same space, they stay focused. They discuss new ideas, get excited together, and stay motivated together.
2. Weekly, one-on-one sessions with team leads
It’s easier to smooth out a little snag than to untangle a huge knot.
Problems can quickly sap team motivation, so it’s important to address them as they emerge — not when they become major roadblocks.
Our teams all have designated leads. And twice a month, each member sits down with the team lead to talk through their struggles.
We’ve found that it’s a great way to flag small issues and ensure everyone’s feeling good. After all, when the team isn’t aligned, motivation really sags.
On the flip side, resolving problems before they take a turn for the worse promotes a happy, productive team.
3. Support and encourage real momentum
In their 2011 book, The Progress Principle, Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer drew on 30 years of research and tracked the inner work lives of employees at seven major companies.
They learned that conventional wisdom about employee psychology is not always wise:
“When we surveyed hundreds of managers around the world, ranging from CEOs to project leaders, about what motivates employees, we found startling results:
95 percent of these leaders fundamentally misunderstood the most important source of motivation.
Our research inside companies revealed that the best way to motivate people, day in and day out, is by facilitating progress — even small wins.”
While the authors were stunned by their research, the results do make sense. Just remember the last time you made tangible progress on something vital, whether it was an assignment, a business, or a creative project.
Accomplishment is intoxicating. It boosts your motivation and eventually, your confidence. But how can you create consistent momentum?
Everyone has a different theory, but I believe in starting small. Break down your tasks. Enjoy small wins and let those little victories add up.
For example, our teams constantly release their work. They often tackle a new feature or project on Monday, then take it live and show what they’ve created during our Friday demo days.
With this approach, there’s always so much momentum in the office — and the ball just keeps rolling.
How to enhance team time management
With space and collaboration, motivation comes naturally. If motivation is one half of the formula for success, time management makes up the difference.
Many of the personal tactics I’ve shared apply equally to teams. But smart time management also means creating a work environment that respects and supports your employees.
Here are four ways that we try to foster a culture of real productivity.
1. Remember that good teams are resilient
If Charles Barkley had been injured during the Olympics, it’s a safe bet that the Dream Team still would have topped the podium in Barcelona.
That’s what makes teams so powerful; everyone plays an essential role, but you can still achieve amazing results if one person is out of the game.
I’ve often talked about how (and why) I value downtime. I want our employees to recharge and come to work rested, too.
If one team member is away, we ensure the group still has the resources they need, whether that’s a designer, a developer, a leader, or technical support.
Even as I write this, four people from our Ankara office are at international conferences. They’re busy improving their skills and developing new ideas.
They’re sharpening their saws — and that’s good for everyone.
2. Encourage prompt decision-making
Making quick decisions is an important way to clear your mind. Decide, implement, evaluate and move on. You’ll feel less stressed and you can put your time to better use.
So, just as I try to make fast choices, I encourage our teams to do the same.
Often, a team will agonize over a certain decision. I understand. I know they want to do their best work — or maybe they’re afraid to fail.
In that case, I tell them to email me about the problem. I’ll share my advice and help them move forward.
Sometimes, I tell them to just make a BAD decision. It’s not common advice, but once they choose, the team can progress. They can evaluate what happened and fix any small messes that happened along the way.
In the end, nothing is broken, they’ve used their time well, and they didn’t lose valuable momentum.
Try it for yourself or your team — you might be surprised how effective a “bad” decision can be.
3. Give them space to focus
In a 2017 Harvard Business Review story, Maura Thomas says leaders often create an environment that undermines team focus:
“The products of knowledge work are creativity, ideas, decisions, information, and communication. All of these require extended periods of sustained focus. However, many offices have a culture in which all communication, regardless of the subject or source, carries the same level of presumed urgency and is expected to produce an immediate response.”
This perspective speaks to me. It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of business, but unless you’re an ER doctor or an airline pilot, nothing is really that urgent.
And if you’ve set up reliable customer service systems, everything else can take more time.
Urgency can also be a culture issue. For example, I’m technically the boss, but I don’t expect anyone to respond immediately to my questions and emails — unless the whole system is going down.
We don’t have a communication hierarchy.
Speaking of communication, I also ask our teams to respect each other’s time. It’s part of creating a healthy, supportive work environment. That means:
- Don’t use Slack unless your subject is really time-sensitive. Otherwise, use email instead.
- Disable email notifications on your computer so you don’t get distracted from the task at hand. You can reply to your emails later — ideally when your mind isn’t as fresh.
- Disable all other device and app notifications.
- Don’t schedule unnecessary meetings.
4. Slash bureaucracy in every form
Nothing slows down progress like rules and checkpoints. But sometimes, businesses default to outdated corporate structures — even when they want to be innovative.
Yes, you need to know who’s responsible for what and how work flows, but there’s no need to over-complicate it.
To me, respecting our teams’ time means eliminating bureaucracy. We try to ensure our teams are as autonomous as possible. They can make independent decisions and execute without permission.
The product leaders and I are happy to help as needed, but I’m not an “approver.” Instead, I believe in assigning responsibility and allowing people to make the best decisions they can.
“When you need to innovate, you need collaboration.”- Marissa Mayer
In today’s world, innovation is the biggest challenge — and the greatest opportunity — for every business, from tech startups to retail stores.
We always want to create a better, more engaging product that helps our customers thrive. That requires cohesive teamwork.
If it wasn’t already clear, I’m super passionate about teams.
I know what’s possible when they work well together, so we do everything in our power to protect their time and help them stay motivated.
Then, we step back and get out of their way.