Friday, February 5, 2016

Urgent! Five Quick Ways To Burn Out Employees

Do you know that Bill Gates used to wander the Microsoft parking lot to see who wasn't at work? A fascinating Washington Post article gives us a bit of insight into Mr. Gates' early approach to entrepreneurial management.

Here's what Mr. Gates had to say about encouraging workplace productivity:

In his early years at Microsoft, Gates — once known for pulling all-nighters and crashing on his office floor — was apparently not a big fan of downtime, for himself or anyone else, he told interviewer Kristy Young.

"I worked weekends, I didn't really believe in vacations," Gates said. "I had to be a little careful not to try and apply my standards to how hard [others] worked. I knew everybody's licence plate so I could look out at the parking lot and see, you know, when people come in."

Wow, talk about incentive to ride a bike to work! I feel burned out simply reading this sneak peek into Microsoft's nascent corporate pressure cooker, while a few startup entrepreneurs are surely thinking: "Hmm, maybe I need to spend more time walking around the parking lot."

On that note, how can managers make sure employees will feel the burn? Here are five quick tips for burning employees out as soon as possible:

1. Keep moving the goal posts. Project A is due tomorrow and employees are working hard to finish it by deadline when...what's this? Project B has come out of the wood work, and why is it suddenly more important than Project A? After awhile, employees have no idea what's going on anymore. Keep them guessing, management!

2. Create a new crisis every day. All workplace problems are equal in the everything-is-a-crisis work environment, which makes it very hard for employees to figure out which projects, and problems, should be their top priority. This workplace runs on drama, and misdirection. Can we start grading workplace crises on a curve, please?

3. There can never be too much useless paperwork. Working requires a long paper trail, because documentation shows that everyone is working. Red tape slows everything down, but keep filling out those forms. Employees will begin to wonder why the word "streamlining" seems only to apply to layoffs.

4. Have a meeting about having a meeting. Overworked employees on deadline will be thinking, "I can't believe we're having a meeting to plan another meeting," but it's the only way to keep meetings on track. For bonus points, refuse to adjust employee deadlines and workload to account for the meeting to plan another meeting. Let's discuss.

5. Wake employees up with new work. There's always a lot to cover in the 4:30 a.m. email, isn't there? A project is being pushed up on the schedule (see Tip #1), there's a fire burning (Tip #2), a new form will need to be filled as soon as possible (Tip #3), and clear the decks for a 10 a.m. meeting to plan an upcoming meeting (Tip #4). Hey, the early bird gets the worm, right?

In all seriousness, employees will be happier, and more productive, if company leaders don't do these things. Management's job is to make employees' jobs easier, so they can get more work done. Now let's have a meeting to plan the meeting where we'll talk about having fewer meetings.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

5 Tips For Making Your Job Feel Exciting Again

It's Groundhog Day, and Punxsutawney Phil didn't see his shadow. Now the question is, what if you feel like you're starring in a workplace version of the movie Groundhog Day?

If you haven't seen the movie, it's the story of a weatherman (Bill Murray) who keeps reliving the same work day over and over again. Over time, he learns how to work the repeating sequence of events to his advantage, and the movie ends well because it's a movie.

Groundhog Day-like sequences are everywhere in real life, too. Just look at the results in Iowa last night. While it looks like Hillary Clinton is narrowly cruising to victory, the whole thing still feels a little bit like deja vu all over again, doesn't it?

But that's national politics. We need to talk about office politics! Namely, what if your work routine has become, shall we say, a little bit too predictable?

You know the routine. At 9:15 a.m., your co-worker will leave to get a cup of coffee. At 9:25 a.m., your other co-worker will place a stack of invoices on the filing cabinet next to you. At 9:50 a.m., your coffee-drinking co-worker will use the restroom and return 30 minutes later. At 10:05, the postal carrier will deliver the mail. Shortly thereafter, your most demanding customer will call to complain.

At noon, your boss will sit down at his desk and eat the same, exact lunch he's had every single day for the last five years. It will be eaten in the same, exact order (sandwich first, then chips, then pickle, then cookie) every time.

On the one hand, the sameness of routine is comforting. In the workplace, sameness allows us to get a rhythm going so we can be more productive employees. We can anticipate and plan better. Managers are always looking for ways to create even more predictability in an unpredictable world. Nobody likes big, last-minute surprises on the job.

On the other hand, predictability can get boring. We no longer feel challenged on the job. It takes longer to get the work done because our minds wander. We might procrastinate until the very last minute simply to feel the thrill of being on deadline. If left unchecked, too much sameness can turn into presenteeism. That's a fancy way of saying our bodies are at work but our minds are somewhere else.

I've been there myself. I wrote a national management column for ten years that followed a specific writing flow. I was always thankful for the work -- I had my dream job! -- but as time went on I felt less and less challenged by it. I wanted to break the mould and try a new approach. So I can relate to the topic.

The sad truth is, today's virtual economy can feel just as repetitive as working on an old-fashioned assembly line. We send the same emails, fill in the same spreadsheets and rewrite the same PowerPoint presentations. Basically, we plug in the same solutions day after day.

Over time, we may feel less and less engaged in much, if any, original problem solving. We're simply going through the motions. It's like doing the same 100-piece puzzle all day long, every day.

Variety is the spice of life, and we need to shake things up a bit. But how? Here are five tips for adding some newness to an old job:

1. Challenge yourself to stay interested. If you're an accountant, you might challenge your co-workers to an invoice processing competition to break up the monotony, for example. Look for ways to do things a little bit differently in small ways. I used to tell myself that my column was due the day before it was actually due, simply so I could enjoy the thrill of working under a tighter deadline. It's how I stayed motivated.

2. Look for volunteer opportunities at work. Whether it's a new project, rounding up a group of employees to pursue an outside volunteer effort, or simply planning a co-worker's workplace party, volunteering to do something new and different will put a temporary stick in the spokes of sameness.

3. Reward yourself throughout the day. If your job is highly repetitive, then you'll need to keep yourself motivated. When I finish this PowerPoint slide presentation, I will go get a hot cup of coffee. Find what works for you to push on through the work. Small motivators really do wonders.

4. Realize that many of your co-workers feel the same way. You're not the only one who feels the monotony. You might ask a trusted co-worker how he or she stays motivated and productive amid the daily dose of predictability. Maybe you two can come up with a way to motivate each other to up your game and keep going?

5. Make sure you have a life outside of work. If your work is your life and your workload has become too boring and predictable, then you desperately need some outside stimulation. It might be a yoga class, a running group, a book club. Look for something fun that propels you to quitting time. Or to a new job, as the case may be.

We've arrived at the end of this post, just like Bernie and Hillary have arrived in New Hampshire. The next week should be very interesting on the campaign trail. I hope you can make your job feel more interesting, too.

Monday, February 1, 2016

What If Your Employer Fired You By Mistake?

Your employer fires you, along with a few dozen of your co-workers, by mistake. You might think this workplace scenario would be the stuff of fiction, but it may have just happened for real at a major Silicon Valley employer.

Yahoo! reportedly laid off nearly 30 employees by mistake. It turns out these employees weren't supposed to be fired; they had simply been labeled as low performers. As The New York Post reports:
"They put people on firing lists who they didn't mean to — people who were lower on the performance scale but who weren't meant to get fired," an insider explained. "But no one told the managers, and then they had the conversations, and it was like, 'Oops.'"
Oops, indeed. That's the rumor, anyway. Yahoo! denies it happened.

The story as reported, however, raises an interesting, if theoretical, workplace question: If your employer let you go by mistake, then would you want your job back?

Hmm. On the one hand, the employer has just let you know that it sees you as a low performer -- if you didn't know it already -- which doesn't exactly inspire the warm fuzzies. Do you want to return to a workplace that has apparently typecast you in an under-performing role? Would you be making a mistake?

On the other hand, it's a job, the economy is still tough, and if the company has rolled out the red carpet (along with a mea culpa, we'll get to that in a minute) awaiting your return, then it may be the easiest solution for now. At least you have work to do.

Still, there might be a few worries in the back of your head as you return to work. Could it happen to me again? And how can I get rid of the dreaded "low-performing employee" label?

This is where a stellar management communication strategy would be crucial. The employer in this situation should ideally offer the returning employee(s) a well-written performance plan, as well as regular one-on-ones, so the employee(s) can see month-over-month performance improvement and regain some lost confidence. I think an employee in this situation would be wise to inquire about the performance plan going forward.

At the same time, the company would need to reassure ALL employees that it has fixed the problem so that it never happens again, because this scenario is truly the stuff of employee nightmares. It's not funny, especially if layoff rumors are already making the rounds.

So, would you want to return to a company that fired you by mistake? I hope you never have to answer this question for real.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Would You Let Your Employer Play Matchmaker?

Canadian accounting firm Freshbooks is getting fresh in the workplace by encouraging blind dates between co-workers. Who needs a mother meddling in your love life when you have a manager?

First, a blizzard update. Our power stayed on (yay!). We spent yesterday alongside our neighbors shoveling more than two feet of snow, and it was nice to see a community-wide effort. Nobody is driving to work today unless they absolutely must, schools are closed, and I'm quickly losing track of time. Today is Monday, right?

I'll get back to today's topic now that I've gained your enduring trust as a professional workplace blogger: dating our coworkers, and with the boss's help and blessing! Surveys show that we like dating our work colleagues even if it doesn't always work out, because who has the time after a long work day to find someone to love? That's a lot of work!

But what if your boss wanted to give you a helpful assist? That's what is happening, apparently, at Canada's Freshbooks. As CBS News reports today:

But the company is now taking workplace satisfaction to a whole new level, setting up "blind dates" for its employees, reports CBS News correspondent DeMarco Morgan.

"I like to meet everyone that shows up. And as the company grew, I noticed that more and more people just didn't know each other's names anymore, which, for me, I thought that was crazy cause I love this really tight-knit community that we built at FreshBooks, and I wanted to keep that up," said manager Mary Grace Antonio.

The company launched its own version of The Dating Game last summer by asking for employee volunteers who would be willing to be set up on a date with a co-worker. The goal was to get employees from different departments -- who may not otherwise interact -- to do the "it's just coffee" thing.

If you're wondering, the "program" allows senior managers to be matched with non-management level employees. No commitment, no pressure, no spreadsheets. Yet. Some of us like to move slowly.

Founder and CEO Mike McDerment sees the company's intra-office matchmaking program as encouraging innovation -- and it's fun! "Two Freshbookers went on a blind date and actually they're both in charge of hiring people, so they ended up discussing a lot of different methods that they use to asses talent," he says.

Talking shop and company strategy on a blind date? It sounds a lot like...another boring status update meeting. I mean, you'd have to work hard to keep the conversation from veering into work-related topics. He looks so cute as he accesses the cloud to find last month's hiring numbers!

And what if your supervisor has a really good feeling about this match, but you don't feel the same way? Would we really want to have the following interaction with our supervisor?

Here's the report. I made the changes. By the way, I enjoyed being set up on the blind date, but I don't think it's going to work out. We're in very different places in life, and he chews with his mouth open. That's a deal breaker for me, sorry. We did come up with some new logistics strategies I'd like to run by you in the afternoon meeting, though. I'll see you there!

With a younger, social media-enabled generation taking over the workplace, perhaps it simply makes sense that they would start changing the way we date to bring it all out into the open, at work, between co-workers?

Matchmaking at work also eliminates some dreaded, burning questions -- namely, where do you work and what kind of work do you do? -- because we already know the answers! This way, the co-workers on the blind date can talk about other things, like how much they're contributing to the company 401(k) plan, and whether or not they're participating in the new wellness initiative.

Overall, Freshbooks has an innovative approach to finding love for those who spend all their quality time at work. In Canada.

Would this workplace matchmaking idea work here in the States, though? Hmm. I'll leave that to our employment lawyers.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Chilling Out In the Eye of the D.C. Snow Storm

I had planned to post a few days ago. Instead, my time has been spent making sure we're ready for today's historic blizzard. Let it snow, indeed.

I thought I'd beat the stampede by getting an early start on my Snowmageddon grocery shopping, only to find out everyone else in town had the same idea. Tensions were running high in the aisles between the Eggos and the eggs as everyone, en masse, tried to beat the crowds. If we're going to be stuck inside for days, then we're all going to need new mayonnaise.

The D.C. area received two inches of snow on Wednesday night, and it took some employees up to eight hours to get home from work. Even President Obama's motorcade did the slip and slide down icy roads back to The White House. Our subway system, the Metro, has announced that it's shutting down later today and it won't reopen until Monday. The good news? Congress says it's okay for kids to sled down Capitol Hill.

It's been a long, hard slog to writing time. But I'm finally here, stocked up on pale ale, original Pringles and toilet paper. I'm not sure what to expect; the only blizzard I've ever stared down is the one sold at Dairy Queen. The DQ employee dramatically holds a full cup of ice cream at arm's length, slowly tips it upside down, and amazingly, nothing falls out. The kids eat it up. Sometimes, life really is about the presentation value.

As Mother Nature presents us with the real deal, I'm trying to chill out a little bit as I watch the dire weather reports on television. This too shall pass, and we'll all be back to our workaholic ways soon enough. If we're worried about anything, it should be making sure that those who need shelter from the storm have it. Let's help each other out, stay safe, and hope the power stays on.

And if we must trek to the grocery store this morning, then we should go easy on the very tired store clerks. They've had to put up with too many of us this week.

Friday, January 15, 2016

It's Time To Talk About Hiring Women Over 50

Did you see the report last week that says U.S. employers added 292,000 employees to their job rolls in December? That's awesome, but there's something missing.

If you manage to get out of the office during the work day to run a few errands, take a look around as you stand in line.

One group you might notice are stressed-out mothers of young children. They'll probably draw your attention pretty quickly as they work hard (and it is work!) to keep their kids in line -- sometimes quite literally in line. But take another look around. Notice anything else?

If not, I'll give you a hint: The startling number of women you'll see who seem to have reached, ahem, a certain age.

You'll see them out and about in weekend clothes during the work day. They're shopping, running errands, maybe having coffee with a friend. Maybe it's their day off from work after putting in a ton of hours over the past week? Perhaps they work part-time, are self-employed, or took early retirement? Perhaps they don't work a job outside the home, which is just fine, too?

However, how many of them wish they had a full-time job, but they have given up trying to find one?

It turns out older women are having the darndest time of any age group looking for a job. In fact, older women comprise half the total number of long-term unemployed people in the United States.

Think about that for a second:1 in 2 long-term unemployed Americans is an older woman.

Wow. Of course, older men don't have it easy either in an increasingly Millennial economy, but they're doing better, overall. The real question is, what are the future socio-economic ramifications of a U.S. workforce that won't hire anyone, especially women, who have reached a certain age? What will happen to these older professionals who still have a lot to offer employers, but can't seem to find anyone willing to take a chance on them?

Seeing the writing on the wall, some unemployed older workers are starting their own businesses, or turning to consulting. Others have simply given up the search for employment, and are passing the time with non-paid activities.

The question is, do we really want to create a work culture that pushes out employees once they hit mid-life? Or do we want to take advantage of older workers' wisdom, work ethic, and work experience?

And how will we make sure older workers who want full-time employment have real job placement opportunities, because wandering the clearance racks during the work day gets old after awhile.

Young managers (as in, any manager under age 35) have an opportunity to impact this issue by re-examining, and re-framing, their basic impressions of older job seekers. Trust me, Millennials. The last thing you want to do is to interview for a job 15 years from now with a 27-year-old Gen Z hiring manager who sees you as too old for the job.

The marginalization of the older job seeker is a huge problem that should be front-and-center in this year's presidential election. Let's hope the candidates of both parties will start talking about it, for real. Older Americans may not be able to find a good job, but they can still vote.