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Minimize Distractions for Maximum Output

May 1, 1995
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Related Topics: Stress Management, Work/Life Balance, Career Development, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
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Are some of your employees functioning at roughly 70% of capacity, rather than the 100% you had in mind during the hiring process? It could be because of the crushing combination of business and personal pressures. They may be worrying about whether they have upward mobility in the company, how they'll send their children to college, how they'll retire someday and whether their own jobs will be obsolete soon. They may be reading articles suggesting that all of us are responsible for our own careers and can no longer assume that an employer will retain us in exchange for company loyalty and hard work. Many employees see an uncharted financial wilderness ahead of them.

In a changing climate, the challenge for every HR professional and corporate manager is to motivate each employee to give 100% at work and to help eliminate the nagging distractions that negatively affect productivity. One way to do that is to address the distractions head-on in efficient, effective ways that don't trigger corporate liability issues and that don't meddle in the employees' private lives. Solutions include career counseling, financial-planning training and flexible schedules that allow workers to deal with family issues.

Career concerns head the list of stressors.
First, you need to identify the distractions. HR professionals are remarkably consistent in their replies when asked about concerns that distract their companies' employees. At the top of their lists are career growth and employability, financial problems and work-life balance.

Employees troubled by these issues reduce the effectiveness of those around them as well as their own. Maxine McLean, whose company Awareness by Design in Tucson, Arizona, works with front-line employees in customer service and business protocol, has seen entire organizations hobbled by one 70% employee because that person is a manager or supervisor. She describes one manager who is under such great stress from financial worries, work-life issues and concerns about career growth/employability, that he must wear a heart monitor. His stress has caused him to treat his front-line managers with disrespect, sabotaging their and their workers' productivity. However, he doesn't realize that he's doing it. Having witnessed front-line employees being rude to customers and seeing the slip in productivity, the manager called in Awareness by Design to counsel the employees on customer service. Those front-line managers told McLean that they find it difficult to treat others with respect when they aren't being respected themselves. "This isn't an unusual case," McLean explains. "I think this happens frequently."

Arthur Reedie, senior consultant with Dimension Five Consultants, Inc. in Monterey, California, believes that helping workers identify their career capabilities is the first step toward building their productivity. He sees HR responsible for helping employees identify their own strengths and get a better grasp of what it will take to use their talents to get ahead, either in their present organization or in another.

Unfortunately, notes Reedie, who founded an outplacement firm, most companies make their greatest investment in the individual needs of their employees when they lay them off. The companies help individuals being laid off deal with the job loss, build a marketing plan to get a better job, and cope with the financial consequences of job layoff through a "crash course" in financial planning. This can be enormously helpful, of course. But what if employers did all these things for the employees they retain? What if employers helped their employees market themselves internally? What if outplacement services could become "inplacement" services?

One bright young employee was having difficulty conforming to the corporate culture. An entrepreneur at heart, he really wanted his own business.

McLean has a positive example of inplacement from the same firm where the highly stressed manager is now getting individual attention to help him return to 100% productivity. Another bright young employee at the company was having difficulty recently in conforming to the corporate culture. In an interview, he explained that he had no financial worries—he made good money—but he hated his job. An entrepreneur at heart, he really wanted his own business. McLean helped him understand that he would have financial worries if he lost his present job, which was more likely than he supposed, but he could develop a plan to reach his goal of self-employment in several years. With her help, he made the commitment to being self-employed, set goals, made a plan, wrote a mission statement and set a time frame. They set those goals in the context of what he could learn in his present job to make him a more successful self-employed person eventually. The benefit of the process for the company is that, although the company may lose this employee later on, his current performance on the job has improved considerably. He has become a 100% employee.

Along with counseling, Hilary Kraft, an independent HR consultant associated with William M. Mercer, Inc. in Los Angeles, explains that many companies are beginning to define for employees what it takes to move to the next level by defining key behaviors, or competencies, needed in their work force. "Competencies cross over particular jobs. Competencies are the core for developing integrated HR systems," Kraft insists. A focus on competencies shifts the emphasis from whether someone is the right person for the job to whether someone has the competencies for the task at hand. She believes that one management tool that helps put the emphasis on competencies rather than job descriptions is the 360-degree performance review, in which an employee's evaluation is done by peers, subordinates and customers, as well as the supervisor.

According to Reedie, who now works in leadership enhancement and has an HR background, implementing solutions to concerns about career growth and employability means creating "learning organizations," in which not just the individual, but the whole organization is committed to ongoing learning. "People want to be part of something that's going somewhere," Reedie points out, "and they want to see that they're going somewhere."

Sun Microsystems is a good example of a learning organization. The Silicon Valley-based firm has devised a creative response to the distraction of worrying about career growth by putting the issue on the table, not under it. Sun offers all of its employees "Career Management Services @ Sun: An Employee Benefit." Every employee at Sun gets two hours of free career counseling yearly. The firm encourages each employee to think of herself or himself as self-employed within the organization. The philosophy is career self-reliance, according to Sun's Lola Gerstenberger, project manager, Career Management Services. "In the 1990's, you need the ability to actively manage your work life in a rapidly changing environment."

To accomplish this sea change in employee attitudes about employment, Sun contracts with the Career Action Center, a not-for-profit organization that counsels Sun Microsystems employees to help them find their best work—the best investment of their abilities—within the company or beyond it.

Reedie believes the questions that distract employees can be reframed within a learning organization so that less distracted employees can pose a new, more important question: "How do I help the boss make decisions that will contribute to everyone's growth?" That's the kind of question that a "self-employed" employee in an organization is more likely to ask.

Employees today need financial-planning training.
After career stability, finances seem to be employees' biggest stressor. Awareness of the employee's dilemma in the new business climate is so pervasive that a new federal regulation, 404 (c), requires any employer who offers a qualified plan to educate employees about financial products and retirement plans. Why? Because employees have become, of necessity, their own financial planners in a world in which very few people work for the same employer from graduation to retirement.

Concern about the obsolescence of "lifetime" jobs with lifetime benefits packages has given most employees a new distraction; now they must be their own money managers and financial planners. Joseph Bonacci, a vice president with a large regional bank in New Jersey, is concerned about this development. "It amazes me how many people have no financial plan, no clue what they'll live on when they retire," he says. Bonacci manages corporate clients, and sees this problem from the banker's and the employer's perspective. He believes that helping employees understand and manage their finances better will increase the likelihood that the employee will be able to function at 100%. As a banker, he suggests employers provide financial planning education to their employees. "It will help get you some loyalty, improve the employees' financial position and help employees become less transient."

He comments that while many employers are probably offering a 401(k) plan, they probably aren't explaining its benefits emphatically enough. Bonacci comments that most bank trust departments are willing to invest a great deal of energy in providing information about 401(k) plans to their corporate customers, such as putting on seminars and returning annually to answer questions about the plan.

However, Kraft believes few companies actually give employees investment education. "Companies have been doing more communication with their employees about investment options within their retirement plans, but we really need to sit down with small groups of people and give them an 'Investments 101' class."

Recognizing the value of financial-planning services that can help a company create more "100%" employees, some firms have begun to tackle the issue. Prosper Marketing Group in San Antonio, Texas, markets innovative financial-planning products to corporations, banks and insurance companies. For example, "Financial Crossroads" is a personal financial self-development program that can be used as a self-study guide or as a workbook for onsite workshops administered by Prosper trainers or affiliated financial institutions. The program helps employees work through the financial aspects of life's potential transitions: serious illness, death of a spouse or child, divorce, care of a parent, retirement or job loss in the family.

Mickey Batsell, president of Prosper Marketing Group, says: "When a company offers 'Financial Crossroads' to its employees, the guide doesn't recommend specific strategies or products. It helps employees visualize their situations and possible consequences and identify potential defensive strategies. It then directs the employee to find an outside financial adviser to help him or her develop solutions. The employee becomes more responsible for his or her own financial health and becomes the owner of a plan that can relieve a great deal of distracting stress that could interfere at work."

A second way to use the program, says Batsell, is for employers and banks to form a partnership to provide this education, customizing "Financial Crossroads" so the bank's products are described and offered as part of the seminar. If the employee is satisfied with the bank products the seminar introduces, the employee is unlikely to sever the relationship with the bank, even if he or she leaves the company.

What's the employee's responsibility? They need to abandon the notion of employer as financial "parent." No external force is responsible for doing an employee's financial planning. HR, therefore, must communicate this responsibility to employees, and make resources available to give employees financial-planning help.

Balancing work and family is another stressful problem.
Employees troubled about financial planning or their own future employability are likely to have difficulty maintaining a work-life balance as well. Perhaps the greatest change emerging in the new workplace is the sense that each of us is self-employed, no matter where we work. Our colleagues are our internal customers. We're responsible for upgrading our skills, knowing our options and thinking about our own future employability. This is all very exciting, but where is there any stability? If our family partners are going through the same reframing process, the strains on family can be enormous.

Linda Artel, a career consultant specializing in work-life issues with the Career Action Center in Palo Alto, California—and a working parent—believes that the most important message to employers who see employees struggling to balance work and family is, "Give them some flexibility so that they can avoid being distracted by personal needs." She offers the example of a parent who could avoid arranging for a half-hour of child care before school every day if her work schedule could be adjusted to begin a half-hour later. The half-hour can be made up in a variety of ways. The point is that the employee whose personal needs are accommodated will be less "worried, distracted and resentful."

Another suggestion that helps employees balance work and family is to put all the types of leave an employee earns—vacation, sick leave and personal leave—into one basket, allowing each employee to use it as she or he decides. This helps the employee avoid the dilemma of whether to call in sick when in fact his or her child is sick. Why not trust the employee to make the best use of leave time? The total number of hours of leave doesn't change; only the administration of those hours changes.

A subsidiary of New York City-based American Express Co. Inc. is using a compressed workweek so that employees can take every other Friday off. In response to the predictable question—Why give them the 10th day off when in many places they'll work 10-hour days anyway?—Artel stresses that a burned out 70% employee is the likely result of unbroken strings of 10-hour days.

Flexplace, a cousin of flextime, offers more options. Artel describes one San Francisco-area employer who gave an entire work group the opportunity to telecommute two or three days a week because their productivity went up so dramatically under that plan. Flexplace requires managers who can cope with not seeing employees for two or three days a week; indeed, the new business environment demands new attitudes and management styles.

What does the successful new manager look like? According to Swanie Schmidt, manager of corporate consulting at the Career Action Center, the new manager is a "mentor, expediter, arbitrator and facilitator"—not a parental figure. Artel stresses that managers must start managing people for results, not for how much time they work. There are few jobs where hours ("face time") count more than product. She describes a focus on productivity as managing in the 21st century, not the 19th.

Employees troubled about financial planning or their own future employability are likely to have difficulty maintaining a work-life balance as well.

Artel summarizes the employer's role in helping employees set work-life boundaries: "Many employees will work evenings and Saturdays for a while to meet a deadline or accomplish a project, but what puts people at 70% is constantly having to spend more than 40 hours a week at work."

Many employees make "deals" with managers to accommodate family or personal needs, but unless such flexibility is company policy, the deals can collapse when the manager changes. If the new manager refuses to honor the arrangement, all the carefully crafted arrangements about child care, elder care, sharing of parental responsibilities, care for a seriously ill partner or exercise time can fall apart. If the flextime or flexplace agreement is perceived as fragile, Artel insists, it becomes a source of anxiety rather than relief from it. Employers won't be able to retain the best employees in such a rigid environment.

Employees share responsibility with managers for avoiding burnout by setting boundaries and priorities, avoiding perfectionism and being flexible about the company's needs. When the work group could make better progress if the employee taking a day off would spend 15 minutes on the telephone, then he or she must be flexible. Employees must "work smart," recognizing most work is potentially infinite and that we all reach a point where return on extra effort is infinitesimal. Again, employees have to speak up for what they need.

Benefits of helping a 70% employee become a 100% employee.
One primary goal of helping a 70% employee become a 100% employee is improving productivity. Another, of course, is gaining and retaining the dedication of good employees. Reedie stresses: "Just giving them a better benefits package—that has no glue in it." A company committed to implementing the kinds of ideas embodied in the practices of Sun Microsystems and the ideas of Prosper Marketing Group is committed to attracting and retaining high-performing employees.

Employers benefit when managers and their work groups develop more effective ways of producing. Creativity becomes a valued competency when everyone is freed up from distractions and has a role in shaping the work environment.

As the work force becomes more diverse, so too do the distractions. In the evolving business climate, it's more important for each employee to be able to say, "I'm an investment for the company. The company is responding to my unique needs." Then, Reedie believes, the employee gains a deeper sense of self-worth and the kind of peace of mind that allows full focus—100%—on the work.

Personnel Journal, May 1995, Vol. 74, No. 5, pp. 70-76.

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