Thursday, December 26, 2013

Resolve to Better Manage Your Time

Ahhh, New Year’s resolutions. We make ‘em, and break em; and vow to make ‘em again. Whether it’s to lose weight, get fit, work better or smarter or just be a better person, most of us struggle to follow through. In our professional lives, making and keeping resolutions can have big payoffs. One of the most common goals I’ve heard is to be more organized and manage time more effectively and efficiently. Many other important benefits can be derived from being more efficient and better managing our time. We can be more productive, make fewer mistakes, have more time to do a better job and ultimately have more success.

Here are some tips to help you in this goal.

We all battle time-wasters, both in our personal and professional lives. These annoying pests can severely affect our productivity. Let’s identify some common time wasters:

We waste a lot of time reacting to what’s going on around us. We bounce from one task to another without making much headway on anything.

Some people fail to put in enough time planning their work - determining priorities, deciding how things will be done, anticipating problems, and so on. But if you don’t plan effectively, you can’t work efficiently.

We often don’t take enough time to prepare for a job. Instead of gathering everything we need (equipment, materials, information we need) before we start, we jump in and then waste time running around looking for the things we need to complete the job.

For many of us, the real queen of time wasters is procrastination. We keep putting things off, wasting valuable time and creating a situation in which we will later be rushed to get the job done without enough time to do it well or risk missing a deadline.

Paying excessive attention to unimportant details also sucks up valuable time. Yes, we want things to be done right. But the best way to maintain quality is to focus on priorities. Wasting time on the unimportant stuff doesn’t leave time for the really important things.

People who try to do everything themselves often end up wasting their own time. Being reluctant to ask for help often results in a job taking far longer than it should. Reluctance to ask questions can mean a lot of time wasted trying to figure out something that a co-worker or supervisor could probably explain in a couple of minutes.

When you don’t clearly understand what needs to be done, you have to waste a lot of time trying to figure it out. Or worse, you make mistakes, which means the job has to be redone.

Being uncertain about expectations can easily get us sidetracked and waste a lot of time. If you don’t understand the goals and standards for a job, you can’t do the job efficiently—and you certainly can’t do it well.

It’s easy to become overcommitted. We often want to say yes, and don’t want to say no. But when you take on too much, you often end up getting very little done. If you’re really overwhelmed with work, talk to your supervisor. Maybe you can work something out. Maybe your supervisor can help you readjust your priorities.

If papers are scattered, tools misplaced, or files unorganized, you spend more time getting ready to work than actually doing it.

Rushing is another time waster. It seems like it would be the opposite, right? The faster you work the better use you make of your time, right? Well, no. Moving faster is not always better. Rushing leads to mistakes, omissions, and rework. And that’s a big waste of your valuable time. Going at a reasonable pace is the most efficient way to work. Remember the old saw: If you have time to do it over, you have time to do it right the first time.

So, how to we get past these obstacles? 

Minimizing time wasters and gaining control over your time begins with proper planning. The time you spend planning before you act can turn into days or weeks of time saved.

Take a few minutes at the beginning of each day to make a list of all the tasks you have to accomplish. I’ve been a list-maker for many years. It does help! And, crossing items off that list can be very satisfying. Another benefit is that the physical act of writing something down will help you to remember it.

You can organize your list into daily tasks and those tasks that must be completed that week. This list could include timelines for short-term projects, scheduled meetings, deadlines, etc. If necessary and appropriate, you can expand this with monthly tasks, as well.

Prioritizing your tasks is the next step. Organizing your tasks and responsibilities into order of priority is essential to keep you from fracturing your energies and ending the day with important tasks not completed. 

Each day, rank the tasks and commitments you’ve listed in order of importance. You can do this simply by numbering tasks—one being the most important, and so on. Or another method is to assign a priority letter to each task.

"A" stands for must-do tasks with the highest priority.
"B" tasks are important and worthwhile, but if for some reason they cannot be accomplished that day, there will not be a crisis.
"C" tasks can wait until you have the time to do them.

Don’t fall into the trap of making everything a top-priority! Remember, "B" and "C" tasks might eventually become "A" tasks tomorrow or next week.

Build in time for the unexpected – you know it will happen – be prepared to adjust your list accordingly.

Allow sufficient time in the day for planning, thinking, making decisions, solving problems—things that only you can do. Don’t fill your list with so many high-priority items that you have no time to plan, make decisions and prepare. 

In order to prioritize tasks effectively, you need to have clear goals in mind. A lot of time is wasted when we put effort into activities that don’t directly relate to achieving the goals of our job or of a project.

Defining goals means you must first determine the desired outcome. What exactly do you need to achieve? 

Short-term objectives are the means of achieving goals. These are the steps that you need to take to achieve a goal. They must be clearly stated and organized in a realistic sequence.

As you work toward your goals, accept that you will need to adjust your objectives as the situation changes. If conditions change significantly, you may also need to redefine your goals.

To manage your time efficiently, you also need to make time-wise decisions about your work. The speed and accuracy with which you are able to make decisions will help you get more done in less time.

  • Gather all the facts and figures you need to make an informed decision.
  • Consider all of the possible consequences of each available option.
  • Talk the decision over with your supervisor or a trusted co-worker.
  • Choose the best available option and make your decision.

Remember that you can revise your decision if things don’t work out as anticipated. 

Capitalize on your prime time. What is prime time?

Your prime time is the time of day when you are at your best and do your best work - you’re the most alert and energetic. For some people it’s the morning when they’re rested and before the day starts to get crazy. For others it’s later in the day when they’ve had a chance to wake up and warm up, or when routine daily activities tend to settle down.

Your prime time may also be the time of day when there are the fewest interruptions and you can really concentrate.

Putting things off is a trap we all occasionally fall into. But this just ends up adding more stress to your day. How can you avoid procrastination? Break a job up into smaller pieces. This can make the task seem less overwhelming. You don’t have to do the whole job at once; you only need to handle it a piece at a time. Sometimes we spin our wheels and become immobilized when faced with a large or complicated project or task. We just need to start somewhere, complete a part of it, and then move on to the next step.

You can begin with the easiest part of the job; this can help get you started. Accomplishment leads to a feeling of fulfillment, and this gives you the energy and encouragement to keep going.

Reward yourself! If possible, switch to a task you enjoy for a little while. Reward plays a subtle but powerful role in motivating you to keep at it and get the job done.

Manage interruptions. Interruptions can seriously cut into your time and leave you distracted and frustrated.  

Whether it’s unexpected visitors or phone calls, set limits for the conversation from the outset. Ask people pleasantly what they want and how much time they’ll need. Try to keep the conversation to the matter at hand. Don’t get involved in small talk.

If possible, answer questions or comply with requests immediately. That way you won’t have to spend time later getting back to the person.

Conclude the conversation firmly. You can indicate the conversation is over by saying something like, "Good, I’m glad we’ve got that settled. Now we can get back to work!"

Controlling your phone and e-mail can also lead to better time management.

If possible, let voice mail pick up incoming calls. Check periodically to make sure you’re not missing something important. You can return urgent calls right away. Other calls can wait until you have a break in your schedule. 

When you do answer the phone and you’re in the middle of something, lead the other person politely to the point of the call. When you feel the matter is concluded and the person keeps talking, say that you’re sorry but you’re busy and have to go.

When you’re making calls, pick a time the person you’re calling is most likely to be in and available so that you won’t have to waste time calling again later. Write down the key points you want to discuss beforehand so that you can get right to the point. If the person you need to speak to isn’t available, leave a message indicating the best time to reach you. Also, use voice mail for its intended purpose; leave a message telling the person what you need! This will save time when that person returns your call with the information you need, instead of resulting in yet another phone call if this person cannot answer your question without getting further information.

E-mail and instant messaging can be efficient ways to communicate since you don’t have to be there to receive the message and incoming messages don’t disturb you when you are there. Again, if the message contains information about what is being requested, time is saved.

Except for the most dire emergencies, most unexpected problems can wait a while. Resist the urge to drop everything and run to put out a fire. Finish what you’re doing first, give yourself time to think about an appropriate response, and then take the action necessary to handle the situation. 

Spend only as much time as necessary on emergencies. Once the situation is under control, move on. Return to your schedule and pick up where you left off.

However, take some time to think about why the emergency occurred and if there is anything you can do to make sure such things don’t happen again. Anticipating problems, and then preventing them, is a key time management skill.

Many of us spend a lot of time commuting every day. Instead of wasting all that time, use it! For example, use it to plan the upcoming day or the next day and decide what you need to accomplish. Or use the time constructively to review work issues, make decisions, or solve problems.

Using even some of these tips can help you become more efficient, effective and successful, whether in your personal or professional life. Here’s to starting the New Year off right!!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

HR’s Wish List

6 "gifts" HR would love to see under the tree

Doesn’t everyone have a holiday wish list? We in HR do, too. Here’s a short list of the things my colleagues and I often wish for when we’re sitting around dreaming……

Understanding: For people to realize we’re there to help maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of an organization’s human capital. For the most part, we’re not there to act as employee advocates (at least not exclusively), so people need to stop being offended when we approach an issue from the employer’s perspective.

Don’t shoot the messenger: we’d like senior management (and everyone else, for that matter) to stop thinking we’re too focused on compliance. The ever-increasing legal and regulatory burden placed on business is astounding, and isn’t our fault, so you need to stop "shooting the messenger." Ignoring legal risks won’t make them go away. Ignoring legal risks can sink your business. And just because we care about managing and preventing legal risks doesn’t mean we can’t be effective strategists too. It’d also be nice if managers, supervisors and employees would stop thinking we just sit around and dream up rules and policies for the fun of it. Trust me, it ain’t all that much fun.

We need accountability. Responsible human beings are accountable for their actions and decisions. Responsible supervisors and managers need to be accountable, and be held accountable for their actions and for supporting the mission of their employer. Don’t play the "HR made me do it" game when relating expectations to your employees. Don’t agree with company policy? Fine, discuss it with your manager; but please don’t ignore policies and procedures or employment laws and regulations, and don’t tell your employees to ignore them. If you can’t, or won’t, act as a responsible supervisor or manager, get out of supervising or managing.

For that outdated "warm and fuzzy" stereotype to go away. HR is now seen by many business leaders as a legitimate business discipline as essential as marketing or finance, so it’s time to stop seeing HR as the party planners and baby sitters and start seeing us as the strategic business partners we can be. Speaking of strategic, how about including us in those strategic business discussions instead of just informing us after you’ve all made decisions? How about treating us like the members of senior management you say we are? You might be surprised at what we’re able to add to those conversations. We can be much more useful to business leaders if we’re in the loop from the beginning and have the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. Simply bringing us in to implement what you’ve already decided is short-sighted.

Trust us. For more organizations to trust their HR departments to participate in, and even manage such areas such as business ethics, whistleblowing, corporate governance, employer branding, the use of blogging and social media in a business context, etc. Trust is an issue that comes into play in many areas. If you don’t like a law or regulation, that’s fine. But, just because you don’t like it, don’t assume that what we’re telling you is wrong and continually force us to "prove it". Trust that we’re the professionals you’re paying us to be. Trust that our knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge is solid and will add to the bottom line.

For everyone to remember that we’re human, too. Yep, that’s right. We’re just as much one of those "human resources" as any employee is. We want to know we’re appreciated, that we’re valued and are heard. We make mistakes (and fix them); we work hard and we care about the job we do, and most of us, most of the time, care about the organization for which we work so hard.

I hope your wish list is a bit more fun. Happy Holidays!!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Professional Email Etiquette

14 tips to keep your emails from ending up in the junk folder

When thinking about our online persona and reputation, we forget that our email is part of that. E-mail can often be rapid fire communication with little thought behind it. But, we need to remember that our emails still make an impression. It can affect your reputation whether you’re searching for a job, or you’re already employed. It’s important to remember that there are certain professional standards expected for e-mail use. Here are some things to keep in mind regarding professional e-mail conduct:

Use a professional email address. If possible, use an email address that contains your name so that the recipient knows exactly who's sending the email. Never use emails that are not appropriate for use in the workplace, such as "blondebomb@..." or "babygirl@..."

Spell names correctly. When you're at a computer, on the Internet, with Google at your fingertips, there really is no excuse for spelling someone's name incorrectly. Especially when the person's full name is in their email address or in their email signature!

Be professional in your presentation. Use spell check or set up automatic spell check to run before messages are sent.  Don’t use multiple fonts or colors, or bold or italicize too many words. Misspellings, writing in all capital letters, poor grammar, slang, emoticons or text acronyms are not good form for professional correspondence. Do not use a lot of graphics embedded in your message, not everyone uses an e-mail program that can display them.

Be careful with humor.
Humor can get lost in translation without the benefit of tone of voice or facial expressions. In a professional exchange, it's better to leave out attempts at humor unless you know the recipient well. Also, something that you think is funny might not be funny to someone else.

Skip the chain letters, virus warnings, and joke emails. Always check a reputable source or your IT department before sending out an alarm about viruses. Chain emails, as well as joke emails aren’t normally workplace appropriate; unless you are sure your recipient(s) truly enjoy or appreciate the content.

E-mail isn't private. E-mail is considered company property and can be retrieved, examined, and used in a court of law. You should also never assume that e-mail over the Internet is secure. Never put in an e-mail message anything that you wouldn't put on a postcard. E-mail can be forwarded, so unintended audiences may see what you've written. Have you ever inadvertently sent something to the wrong party? Always keep the content professional to avoid embarrassment.

Use sentence case. USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS IS INTERPRETED AS SHOUTING. However, using only lowercase letters looks sloppy and lazy.

Use CC appropriately. Copy only people who are directly involved or who have a need to know. Don’t unnecessarily clutter the inboxes of people who don’t really need to see your emails.

Use group e-mail sparingly. Only send group e-mail when it's useful to all recipients. And just as importantly, only use the "reply all" button when truly necessary.

Subject lines are important.  Make sure the subject line relates to the content of your email. Not only will this increase the changes of the email being read, it can facilitate searching for emails when we need to do so. Blank subject lines are not helpful, nor are subject lines that have nothing to do with the content ("Happy Friday!"). Depending on your audience, you can also put "reply requested", "action required" or "FYI" in the subject line to indicate what you need from them, being careful to not come across as overly demanding.

Don’t forget your attachments.  Take care to remember to attach the documents you want to send. We’ve all forgotten to do this at times! Also, always mention your attachments in your e-mail to help your reader notice them.

Use a signature that includes contact information. To ensure that people know who you are, include a signature that has your contact information, including your mailing address, Web site, and phone numbers.

Don’t expect instant responses. Email wasn't created so that we could all respond to each other's messages at the speed of light (well, ok, maybe it was). But in business, that’s just not always possible. There's nothing wrong with a friendly follow-up if you’re not heard from the recipient in a reasonable length of time, but don’t get impatient if you don’t receive a response in minutes.

Respond in a timely manner.  Despite the above item, respond to e-mails within the same business day if possible. If you don’t have the information requested by the sender, acknowledge you’ve received the email and will respond further when you can provide the information.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Getting New Hires Off to a Good Start

We’ve all been there. A new hire fails to live up to our hopes and either has to be let go, or requires a major correction of some sort. What went wrong, we wonder? Was there something we should have seen during the interview process, but missed? Did the reference-checking fail to uncover deficiencies? Sometimes, the problem is that managers and supervisors think the success or failure of a new hire as the responsibility of just one person – the new hire. So, instead of asking what went wrong, maybe we should be asking where we failed to properly support and prepare the new hire to succeed.

It’s easy for a newbie to get lost and become unsure of themselves and their role if expectations aren’t made clear and communicated up front.

Beginning on day one new hires need to be ushered through your organization’s procedures, culture, the tasks and realities of their job and general expectations of what success looks like for that employee.

Ideally, this should begin with an orientation, formal or otherwise. In reality it often begins the minute the new hire walks in the door on his first day. What should happen?

Be Prepared. The employee’s immediate supervisor should be on hand to greet him and get him started on the basics. If, as the supervisor or manager you cannot be there (really, this shouldn’t ever be the case), assign someone else who has the knowledge and ability to do so. Make sure things like computer log-ins, phone extensions, email, etc. (if appropriate) are already set up and ready to go.

Walk the new hire around and introduce him to people he’ll be interacting with, as well as simple things like where the restrooms are, the lunch area, etc. First days are stressful enough without being left floundering for something as simple as finding the restroom or where to store or eat your lunch.

Solid Orientations are a must. Never just throw a new hire into the fray to sink or swim on her own without orienting her to her job, company expectations, culture, etc. True, first days may feel like being thrown in without preparation, but make sure you’re giving new hires as much information as possible before they actually begin working on tasks and assignments.

You should be covering basic expectations about both general work behavior and professional behavior such as:

  • What are the employee’s hours? Are there break times?
  • What are procedures to use for calling in when sick or running late? What’s acceptable under the policies for missed days or tardiness?
  • What are appropriate and allowable uses of technology and social media?
  • Is it acceptable to make or take personal calls in the workplace?
  • What’s acceptable concerning relationships with co-workers, supervisors, clients outside of work?
  • Can colleagues date? If so, must they be in different departments? Have lateral positions? Report it to HR?

Performance expectations are essential to communicate from the beginning.

  • A thorough review of the job description and tasks required is in order during orientation.
  • What are key indicators of both expected and outstanding performance in this position?
  • What skills and behaviors do you want to see displayed?
  • What constitutes appropriate work attire?
  • Are there key benchmarks or deadlines that must be met in the first 90 days or 6 months?
  • How are promotions and raises decided?
  • What are the expected practices for handling the "typical" problems that someone in this role will face?
  • How should an employee navigate a problem? At what point should a supervisor be brought in?
  • What are company practices for handling internal conflict or conflict with an outside entity?
Attitude and passion are part of performance. Relating expectations and guidance for success to new hires will help them actually become successful.

  • What’s an appropriate workplace attitude?
  • What values do successful employees display in their work? How do those values translate to behavior on the job?
  • What values does the organization deem important?
  • How can new hires best incorporate themselves within company culture?

This is where a good mentoring program can be helpful, as well. Be careful, though, that the people you assign as mentors possess and display the skills, values and attitude your organization deems important. Remember, someone will be training your new employees and introducing them to your culture. Make sure those people share your vision.

On the job training. Most of us are pretty familiar with the concept of on the job training. These programs are usually more formal in nature and often have a set start and end, after which the new employee should be reasonably well trained to perform his or her job. However, tossing a new employee into the work environment, expecting her work group or team will show her the ropes, or that new hires will learn by watching their team, is no better, and often worse than giving them no direction whatsoever. There can be no doubt that this practice will result in failure, sooner or later, for that employee.

Whether you call it orientation, or on-boarding, this process is vital to the success of all employees and to your organization. You can break it down into these basic areas:

Administrative: includes the practical details like getting the employee into the payroll system, benefit plans, computer systems, etc.

Technical: includes focusing on making sure the employee has the training and knowledge to perform the job.

Social/Cultural: includes getting the employee integrated into your culture; allowing them to get to know the people they will work with and for.

Getting your new hires off to a good start is crucial for retention, especially (although not exclusively) for hourly workers. Statistics for turnover during the early period of employment show it’s not unusual for 50 percent of a company’s hourly employees to leave within 120 days of their hire date. A thorough orientation or onboarding process has been found to have a strong effect on the adjustment and outcomes for new hires who have limited prior work experience, which is often the case with people being hired into entry-level hourly positions.

Done correctly, a successful program will increase your new employees’ understanding of their specific roles and responsibilities, and help them to become active and productive employees in your organization and within its culture.