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We’ve Got The Power: How DPMs Influence Ways of Working

Confession: I’m slightly obsessed with productivity. If you’re like most people, your reaction to this information is a polite nod, an awkward silence, and a quick character assassination. Admitting I’m interested in productivity labels me as either a wellness charlatan, hustle culture convert, or soulless mid-level manager. Why does being productive conjure up these negative images?

office manager drinking a cup of coffee

The mid-level manager often associated with productivity.

 

Because, for many of us, productivity represents an impossible standard.

But, it doesn’t have to. This article will share ideas for how DPMs can foster realistic standards of productivity—and, in the process, influence their organizations to adopt new ways of working that improve team focus and output.

What Is Productivity, Really?

The prevailing narrative is that being productive means doing it all—crushing it at work, killing it at home, posting details of our scorching social life on Insta, and maintaining a taxing schedule of self-care. We don’t believe we’re productive unless we’ve crossed every item off our to-do list.

But, being productive shouldn’t be about quantity over quality. Being productive should mean that we’ve succeeded in freeing up mental space to do creative work that fosters innovation. It should mean that we are engaging effectively with a community that cultivates psychological safety and empowers teams to do their best work.

Productivity And The Future Of Knowledge Work

I recently read Cal Newport’s book, A World Without Email. (I warned you that I’m into productivity.) One of the key takeaways is that organizations are failing to provide the institutional support that knowledge workers require to perform most effectively.

Sure, some companies may be investing in productivity software, but what percentage of their workforce spends the day slogging through endless meetings only to do “real work” at night after the kids are in bed?

woman shaking her head with the text "busted"

Are you “busted” for failing to set healthy professional boundaries?

Rather than streamlining processes, experimenting with new ways of working, or (gasp!) prioritizing what’s important, the default “solution” is to urge people to be more productive. Turn off notifications! Batch your email! Do yoga! Eat the frog! Even if we as individuals somehow succeed in designing productive practices that work for us, these practices only go so far if the system we’re working in is broken.

The good news is we may be on the verge of an inflection point.

Graph Of Bureau of Labor Statistics

Annual labor productivity growth from 2001—2021 Q1 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Check out that hockey stick growth starting in 2021! (Source)

According to the MIT Technology Review, the United States is about to experience a productivity boom powered in part by technological innovation and the digitization and reorganization of work. In this environment, organizations that are willing to take risks that tap into knowledge workers’ latent productivity are poised to reap the greatest rewards.

The increased prevalence of remote work and supporting technology offers an unprecedented degree of flexibility in our ability to communicate asynchronously with colleagues in different locations and time zones.

Yet, the desire for synchronous communication—and perhaps the absence of commuting time—appears to be pushing us into longer and longer workdays of seemingly endless meetings. How can digital project managers navigate these emerging trends to power the digitization and reorganization of work?

The Role Of Digital Project Managers In Influencing The Future Of Work

While digital project managers may not have the power to delete email or stop Slack traffic in its tracks, we are uniquely positioned to unlock worker productivity. Here are some small steps that DPMs can take to improve ways of working for our teams:

Practice Good Meeting Hygiene

Contrary to popular belief, meetings don’t have to be universally terrible if DPMs follow these guidelines to make them effective:

  • Before the meeting: Clearly define the meeting purpose and goal. Distribute a meeting agenda in advance. Whenever possible, schedule the discussion during business hours and with at least 24 hours’ notice so people can prepare. Don’t be afraid to assign (and enforce) pre-work!
  • During the meeting: Actively facilitate the discussion to ensure it meets the stated objectives. If one person attending the meeting is remote, then treat the meeting as 100% remote. Assign someone to keep meeting notes.
  • After the meeting: Summarize decisions and action items.

Promote Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous communication is becoming increasingly important in a remote, geographically dispersed working world. As an extrovert, I confess that I typically have preferred swinging by someone’s desk or hopping on a phone call to hash things out. But, the pandemic has taught me that this approach is far from inclusive.

Also, if we take the time to write things down—and it does take time!—we can unlock a lot of latent productivity by empowering staff to learn new skills independently. If you’re worried no one will read your process documents, take the next step. I’m a big fan of creating self-service workflows (e.g. onboarding, ticket templates, design frameworks) that teams can customize for their own use.

Demystify Communication Protocols

Many organizations invest in productivity software like email, IM, or video conferencing, but few have written guidelines about how these communication tools should be used. DPMs can document, disseminate, and enforce communication norms, including expectations for response time, to alleviate unnecessary stress.

Set And Model Professional Boundaries

We’d love if our organization could set these on our behalf, but until they do, we have to do this ourselves. Establish consistent working hours and times when you won’t be disturbed and communicate these habits to others by sticking with them. Avoid multitasking during meetings. If possible, design your work day to minimize switching between multiple tasks and carve out blocks of time for focused work.

In addition to these personal practices, DPMs can also work to better understand their teams’ needs and motivations. My team has implemented a few tactics that seem to be working well in the age of remote work and asynchronous communication:

  • Conduct a monthly motivation survey to understand how folks feel about their projects and roles. Reviewing anonymized month-to-month trends helps pinpoint problem areas and shortens the feedback loop for learning and action.
  • Establish weekly optional drop-in office hours for those who might need advice on a work question, a break to joke around with colleagues, or simply the opportunity to work quietly with others
  • Implement a weekly shout-outs email listing team accomplishments. These could range from individual performance milestones to examples of great teamwork to celebrating those who recognized they needed to take time off for mental health.

Hopefully, adopting these personal and team habits will inspire others in your organization to do the same.

The Knowledge Worker Revolution

Some of the suggestions I’m making probably don’t seem glamorous. But, for me, they are incredibly important when I consider the brilliant ideas that may be lurking in people’s heads but are stifled by the laboring tedium of poorly designed workflows, the minutiae of pointless meetings, and the miasma of endless context switching.

I’m excited for how DPMs can help our lagging organizations—the ones who aren’t already boldly experimenting with 4-day work weeks and 5-hour work days—to take the first halting steps towards unlocking a knowledge worker revolution.

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Sarah Hoban

About Sarah Hoban

Sarah is a project manager, product manager, and strategy consultant with 10+ years of experience leading cross-functional teams of engineers and business analysts to execute high-risk multi-million dollar projects. She excels at diagnosing and prioritizing project problems, quickly mastering complex technical concepts and conveying them to stakeholders, and streamlining operations. Sarah is passionate about productivity, leadership, building community, and her home state of New Jersey.

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