Expert Column: Management Challenge #5


This is the sixth in a continuing series investigating the dynamics of supervisory relationships in the changing workplace by best-selling author Bruce Tulgan, founder and chairman of RainmakerThinking, Inc. 

As we all know, it is critical that employees be faithful to a very precise schedule: Those are jobs where the employee’s physical presence at a specific place and time is essential to his/her work. It might be a factory where shifts are timed to keep the production machinery working around the clock. In retail, somebody needs to be there to open the store, first thing, and close the store, last thing, not to mention in between when customers might want to shop. In a hospital, you need coverage all the time because you can’t have patients there without health care providers. Whenever “coverage” is the critical time management factor, everybody has much less flexibility, so everybody needs to work harder to make it work.

Trumpet the value of time – everybody’s time. Remind people frequently and enthusiastically how valuable everybody’s time truly is and insist that everybody’s time be respected.

What about the employee who is chronically late, leaves early, wastes time or takes too many breaks?  What is to be done with employees who simply cannot live by a simple schedule? Tardiness, leaving early, and taking too many breaks: These issues seem so petty as performance problems go. Why do these problems nag away at managers?

In some cases, managers are right to attribute these problems to an employee’s blasé attitude or a lack of care, consideration or diligence. When that’s the source of the problem, there is no substitute for constant reminders in your regular one-on-ones. Just by focusing on it, you are likely to make it better, at least for a little while:

You say: “You’re late.”

            Employee: “I know. I’m sorry. I overslept.”

            You: “You are supposed to be on time.”

            Employee: “I know. I’m sorry. There was bad traffic.”

            You: “You need to be on time.”

            Employee: “Yes. I’ll try to do better.”

Then, probably, the employee is going to be on time the next day. Maybe he will be on time for a while. Until the next time he’s late. Do you have the same conversation again? How many times? You have to be the judge of when too much is too much. When somebody does actually get fired for coming in late (or leaving early, or taking too many breaks), everybody else usually gets the message. At least for a while.

Believe it or not, some people, by the time they come to work for you, have never really mastered the fundamentals of living by a schedule. You might be the first person to hold them accountable for being “on time.” In the process, you might end up doing this person a huge favor.

Are some employees insulted or annoyed by the explicit focus on the petty details of living by a schedule? Perhaps they are. But almost always they start coming in on time, staying all day and taking fewer breaks, at least for a while. A lot of employees will be genuinely grateful for your helping them get better at living by a schedule.

What about employees who sneak out early?

Sometimes they are just helping themselves to a little free time. Others might have obligations after work that leave them pressed for time. You might have to talk through with them the after-work schedule so they make sure they push back any obligations to a time that does not require them to leave early. Talk through what it is going to take for that person to stay all the way until the end of his scheduled work obligations. Spell it out. Break it down. Follow up. One technique I’ve seen managers use is to schedule some very concrete to-do items for the employee during the last hour of his work time in order to help him stay focused up to the last minute.

What about employees who take too many breaks and wasting time at work?

The answer is the same. Talk about it in no uncertain terms. Spell out what’s required: At work you are expected to be focused on getting work done very well very fast all day long. Everyone has time-wasters, but nobody can afford them. Help people identify their big time-wasters and eliminate them altogether.

So, how can you help your time-management-challenged employees succeed?

Step one: Help them set clear priorities and communicate about those priorities relentlessly. Make sure your direct reports are devoting the lion’s share of their time to first and second priorities. Teach them to postpone low-priority activities until high-priority activities are well ahead of schedule. Those are the time windows during which lower-priority activities can be accomplished, starting with the top lower priorities, of course.

Time-wasters, on the other hand, must be identified and eliminated altogether whenever possible!

One of the best gifts you can give anybody is teaching them how to maintain an old-fashioned time log to begin to understand how they actually use their time inside and outside of work. That way, they can start planning their time more effectively and eliminate time-wasters.


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