Time is money, and the uncertain economy demands that you reduce overhead and improve efficiency. Here are some strategies to streamline routines and improve the flow of information by removing wasted time from your systems and routines.
Establish a regular time to work on routine tasks, such as reading and responding to correspondence. Decide immediately whether to handle, delegate, file or discard a task or request. Group similar items and complete them together. Most importantly, make sure your supplies and current files are within your reach. If you have to stand up or search for materials, you will tend to procrastinate.
Format reports consistently, so readers can locate important information fast. A single page or bulleted list usually is sufficient. Better yet, circulate only the changes to procedures or project information, and delete all routine reports from your system. If it doesn’t need to be known or require action, don’t make someone read it.
Keep standard documents, such as training materials and employee manuals, in binders that allow you to remove and replace single items. Print on both sides of pages, use graphics to convey complicated information or provide visual clues, and organize indexing to facilitate retrieval.
Upload reference documents to a company Intranet instead of attaching them to e-mails. Studies show comprehension decreases when text is read from a computer screen. Downloading breaks work rhythms, so keep messages short. Use codes or key words in e-mail subject lines to enable the message to be absorbed by scanning the inbox list without opening it. Etiquette-driven but unnecessary responses to messages can be eliminated by using e-mail receipts or automatic responses, such as “message acknowledged” in subject lines, and it is not necessary to use salutations, such as “Dear Sue” or “Hi” in e-mails.
Using a central electronic calendar also can expedite the transfer of routine information and prevent scheduling conflicts. Regular meetings are blocked into the calendar well in advance, and planners are motivated to schedule early to claim their preferred slots.
Model conversations are brief and focused. Leave voice messages that are no longer than 20 seconds and don’t require replies. Keep hallway conversations to a minute or less. Listen to customer complaints before breaking in to offer solutions, and you will avoid long debates. Require employees who approach you with problems or complaints to offer ideas and solutions at the same time. Building and maintaining relationships depends on the quality, not the quantity, of words.
Most meetings are time wasters, so reduce or eliminate them if possible. Instead, establish routine times on certain days when everyone is available to communicate by conference call, text message or in person. If you need to schedule a brainstorming session, distribute the agenda and background information in advance. Keep the discussion focused, and discourage side conversations, irrelevant comments and excessive repetition.
Encourage employees to structure work to align with individual body clock preferences. Morning people should tackle difficult projects early, while night owls need to defer them until later in the day. Allowing individuals to set flexible schedules, or even telecommute occasionally, has been shown to improve motivation and efficiency. Since you don’t monitor employee work every minute, the required level of trust is already established. You judge by results, not time invested.
Synchronize and organize
Make sure to back up and synchronize your phone, laptop computer and/or PDA automatically. Transferring information between electronic devices takes only seconds and saves you the frustration of searching for missing data, especially if you use a consistent filing system that can jog your memory when you need to find information fast.
It seems paradoxical, but waiting a few minutes before responding to a crisis can help you make better decisions. An internal or external customer may imply the existence of an emergency to pressure you into a hasty decision that may be detrimental to the company. Unless your building is on fire or someone is threatening your employees, you will save time and money by taking a few minutes to relax, consult key people and gather data before committing to action.
Most important, make your priorities and strategies transparent, so everyone in the company can organize work and align their efforts with overall company goals. Often, inefficiency results when employees are not given clear expectations or purposes for their work.
NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.