SHRM All Things Work

The Art Jackson Solution for Workplace Productivity

Episode Summary

Workplace productivity is slumping downward. Employees are accomplishing less today than in the past, despite advances in workplace technology. In this episode of All Things Work, host Tony Lee is joined by Art Jackson, president of Eagles Nest Performance Management and an expert in leadership, performance and productivity. Jackson says leaders can solve productivity problems by changing their organization’s approach to meetings, remote work, AI and more.

Episode Notes

Workplace productivity is slumping downward. Employees are accomplishing less today than in the past, despite advances in workplace technology. In this episode of All Things Work, host Tony Lee is joined by Art Jackson, president of Eagles Nest Performance Management and an expert in leadership, performance and productivity. Jackson says leaders can solve productivity problems by changing their organization’s approach to meetings, remote work, AI and more.

Follow All Things Work wherever you listen to podcasts; rate and review on Apple Podcasts.

Music courtesy of bensound.

This episode of All Things Work is sponsored by UKG.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1: This episode is sponsored by UKG. UKG offers HR, payroll, and workforce management solutions that support your employees to make your fairytale workplace a reality.

Tony Lee: Welcome to All Things Work, a podcast from the Society for Human Resource Management. I'm your host, Tony Lee, head of content here at SHRM. Thank you for joining us. All Things Work is an audio adventure where we talk with thought leaders and taste-makers to bring you an insider's perspective on All Things Work. Today, we're discussing employee productivity. Unfortunately, US productivity has fallen in each of the last four quarters according to the BLS. Beyond that, productivity has been sputtering for the last 15 years, McKinsey reports. Now, theories abound on why productivity is falling, but experts seem to agree that certain factors are universal.

Including shortages of labor, especially skilled labor. High stress levels, and disengagement among employees. Hybrid and remote work. Excessive meetings that keep workers away from their jobs and the failure of many companies to embrace automation. Joining us today to talk about this issue is Art Jackson, a professional speaker and executive coach who is a recognized expert in the areas of leadership, performance improvement, and employee productivity. Art is president of Eagles Nest performance management based in Woodbridge, Virginia, as well as a West Point graduate who has worked with a range of federal agencies and Fortune 500 companies to help them boost employee performance. Art, welcome to All things Work.

Speaker 1: Tony, how you doing today?

Tony Lee: I am great. Thanks so much for being here.

Art Jackson: All right. It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Tony Lee: You bet. I've heard that you can define a productive workforce as one that requires an environment where employees feel supported and respected while receiving opportunities for learning and career development. Does that sound right to you?

Art Jackson: It does. We want a workplace where people feel that they can show up and bring all of themselves to the position, and they can really put that, let's call it an A game on the table, and can really give everything that they have. When you're talking about things like feeling supported, feeling respected by the leaders that are around them, that pays dividends. They also need to feel like they're on a mission. Some of the numbers that you were giving upfront kind of, well, I guess they surprised me a little. Here's the thing, we have made a shift when it comes to performance and productivity. We've had the industrial age and people were working on a line and their productivity was measured in how.

Many hours they were standing on that line, how many widgets they actually developed. We've moved from an industrial workforce to more of a knowledge-base workforce, but there still has to be some way of measuring it. It is not simply, I need 15 widgets out of you a month. Now, it's a little grayer, a little harder to define. It means that the leader has to work with the subordinate to figure out what is it that we need to get done over the next 12 months. Notice, I said we. What is it that we need to get done over the next 12 months? Let's divide that up into monthly increments, and you and I are going to talk every single month.

People want to have opportunities. People want to be respected. Doing things like allowing them to decide where they're going to work, whether it's in the workplace, sitting in their cubicle, and some people want to do that. Some want a hybrid thing. Sometimes I'm in the workplace and sometimes I'm not. There are others that want, "I want to work remotely, period. Everything that you're asking me for, I can do that in a remote location rather than just doing it in the workplace." We've got a lot of leaders now that are still going "I'm not sure if they're working if I can't see their body around the corner in that cubicle." That's a shift that we're going to need to make right there.

Tony Lee: It makes sense. In terms of learning and career development, do you think companies are doing enough so that employees feel like, "Okay, I understand where I'm going. I get if I do this job, maybe I do it another six months, a year, whatever the time period is, this is what comes next." Is that happening? Are companies doing it and is that why employee productivity might be down because they don't see that?

Art Jackson: No. A lot of companies are not doing it. A lot of companies are just, it's like they're playing whack-a-mole. You remember that old game that they had in the fair?

Tony Lee: Sure.

Art Jackson: A head pops up, you knock it down. Some task pops up, they knock it down. Another one pops up over here, they hit it again. They just keep doing that. If you ever paid attention to that when they had it at the fair, they never gave you a very big prize for it because you really weren't doing anything other than hitting that mole in the head. We have to, as leaders, move to the point that we're looking at that strategic plan, the thing that's up on high. Developing a vision for people, and then drilling it all the way down until I find out here's exactly what Tony needs to be doing over the next 12 months.

I also need to add in things like education. You're going to find this hard to believe, but most people don't want to get additional education. Until they start getting additional education, until they start seeing, I'm getting close to the end of this. I can do something with it now. I can move up the career ladder a little bit more because of the education that I've got. I used to wonder when I'm on the internet and I'm looking at articles. They would say upfront, "This article is a two to three minute read." Then I look at it and go, "I wonder why they're putting that in there." What I've discovered is that if it is more than about five minutes, people won't even start to read it. Right now, we have so many other ways that people can do their professional development.

Someone was asking me the day after my session, how do you get information out to people that just don't want to read? Well, how about YouTube? How about a video? How about a webcast or something like that so that people can actually sit there and watch? Even the person that's hardest over on, I don't want to read, they're willing to sit there and watch, especially if it's a good video. Those are some of the things that we should be doing. When I ensure that people are getting professional development, that's when they start to grow. Long-term, they start to feel good about it because they're saying, "He really does care about my professional development. He cares about me as an individual."

Tony Lee: There are employees who take advantage of tuition reimbursement or whatever, and go get a degree. A lot of people don't have the time for that or even the interest in that. Does certifications play a role? Are there things that companies can do to help people learn and develop without full-fledged college program?

Art Jackson: I was listening to a session. They were talking about the idea, does everyone actually need a college education? We take a lot of positions and whom we're trying to describe, who we're looking for as the ideal candidate. We decide they have to have a college education. Years ago, it used to say a college education or equivalent experience. What we should be looking at is, what are the talents that this individual brings to the table? One of my favorite movies is Hidden Figures. In that movie, there's a woman that was an aspiring engineer. She wanted to be an engineer.

In high school, she had not gotten the training that she needed in order to get into an engineering program, but she was particularly gifted when it came to engineering. She read a lot of books. She understand a lot about the analyses that engineers go through. She was the one that came up with design changes for the heat shields on the capsule. No degree. She just simply understood what the requirements were from an engineering perspective, and she came up with a fix for it. Now, suppose they hadn't allowed her to do it and goes, "Well, no. We don't want to look at yours because you don't have an engineering degree."

What we should be looking at is, what's an A game for this individual? If it doesn't actually require a college degree, then why push for it? If water's running in the wrong place in my house, I do not need somebody with a college degree, I need a plumber. If he's certified and she knows exactly what she's doing, that's even better. Everyone does not need a college education. They need to do things, move in certified ways, get certifications that speak to their particular giftedness.

Tony Lee: Makes perfect sense. You mentioned remote work and coming back to the office. I want to go back to that a little bit. Because I think that has a big impact on employee productivity. Research has shown that employee expectations have changed a lot since the pandemic, and workers are looking for more work-life balance. They're thinking about their own mental health. The question there is, does that come from being able to work remotely? Does that come from having a flexible schedule? Now, you have some companies that have embraced remote first that are now reversing their decisions and saying, "We're seeing a price paid for not having people in the office." Whether it's loneliness or a lack of connectedness, or they don't understand the company culture. Is that an impact on employee productivity if they don't feel like they're part of the team?

Art Jackson: I think so.

Tony Lee: What can companies do?

Art Jackson: I think that's a negative when it comes to remote work. In order to build a team, you got to go through those classical stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing. It is difficult to do storming over Microsoft Teams. Now, you just can't. You're not going to get as much conflict. I think with a new team member that's coming in for a certain amount of time, they need to be around the other teammates so that they can start to understand the culture, understand people's talents and their weaknesses and they start to bond to them. I think remote work ought to be a privilege. Everybody shouldn't get the same thing. One size does not fit all in that kind of an environment.

I think it should start with an experiment, almost. Tony's a brand new guy. He just came onto our team. Tony, for the first 90 days, you're going to be working in the workplace. A lot of the time you're working in the workplace. As your leader, I'm going to be in the workplace too because I want you to really understand this organization. You've got the best opportunity to be successful. Now, after those 90 days, you and I are going to do a little experiment. I'm going to let you work remotely and we can start off with about three days out of the week.

I'm going to make sure you know exactly what you need to be doing during those days. I'm not going to call you every morning and see if you're sitting in front of the computer. I don't do that. That's micromanagement and it doesn't help productivity. Instead, we're going to have some very, very defined actions that you need to take and we're going to run it for about, let's do it for about 60 days. At the end of the first 30 days, you and I are going to have another discussion and I'm going to tell you whether I'm seeing that productivity or I'm not. Now, at the end of the 30 days, if I'm not seeing the productivity, I'm going to give you another 30 days.

We're going to have a talk about it, but I'm going to give you another 30 days. Tony, at the end of 60 days, if I'm still not seeing that productivity, guess what? You're coming into the workplace and you're going to be working here. That doesn't mean I'm never going to try to experiment again, but it appears as if you need some more handholding in order to get your work done. You're going to come back into the workplace. Now, as we're doing our little experiment, you're going to see other people that are on the team that are working remotely five days a week. The reason they're doing that is because they've demonstrated that they can do that. We're going to work our way through that and you and I are going to just keep touching base until we figure out what works best for you. Once we have that locked down, we can always increase it or decrease it as we go along. That's what we're going to do.

Tony Lee: Sounds like a great approach. That's really interesting. The other bane of people's existence, meetings. It felt like during the pandemic meetings just soar because you were communicating otherwise. You were just constantly on Zoom or Teams or whatever. Because that's killing productivity.

Art Jackson: It is killing productivity. People actually think when they're having a meeting that they're working. They aren't working. They're having a meeting. Most of the people that are in there in that meeting, they aren't actually even attending the meeting. They're doing something else on the side. I had a client that I was coaching and he was the secretary of Social Services for the Commonwealth of Virginia. When I start off with a new client, I like to spend some time with them, see how their week goes, figure out where they may have some challenges. I'm talking with this guy and I said, "Tell me. How does your Monday look?" He goes, "Well, we got a staff meeting on Monday morning." I'm going, "Okay, it's a bad time to have a staff meeting, but okay, we'll talk about that later."

I said, "What else do you do on Monday morning?" He goes, "I just told you. We have a staff meeting." I'm looking at him going, "Are you telling me that all Monday morning is your staff meeting?" He goes, "Yeah. Four hours." He goes, "Yeah." "You're telling me that the highest-ranking people in Social Services in the Commonwealth of Virginia are all sitting together in a conference room for four hours on Monday morning?" He goes, "Well, it is a big agency. We got a lot to talk about." I'm going, "What in the world could you be talking about for four hours? The president's world security briefing takes 33 minutes every morning. You got them there for four hours. What are you talking about?"

I had the opportunity to go to his meeting and I discovered absolutely nothing. They're getting together for four hours. How'd your weekend go? There's no agenda. There's no action register or action items coming out at the end of it. They're just sitting around the table for four hours talking on a Monday morning. One of the first things that we did was to get him to drop it. Getting him to drop it was actually easy. It was something I did when I was a corporate executive. I'm going, "Let's continue your staff meetings. We're not going to do them on Monday mornings anymore. Let's do them on Tuesday mornings and we're going to do them in the parking lot."

He goes, "What do you mean?" "We're going to do them in the parking lot? We're going to start at the front door. You got a big parking lot. We're going to walk around the parking lot. We may do it twice when we get started. The goal is to get down to one trip around the parking lot. When you get back to the door, that's the end of your staff meeting. Whatever they want to talk about, you need to make sure that you get it down while we're walking around." He started doing that. Fortunately for me, we started in the fall. Then it was rolling into the winter, so nobody wanted to go around twice, so it worked out really good.

Tony Lee: That is really great. The flip side of this is there are people who say for productivity reasons, managers say, "Well, I need there be engagement among my team. They need to know each other and like each other and be able to work together. We have a meeting so that everybody can spend time with one another." Is there value there or should they be expected to do that on their own time?

Art Jackson: There is value there. It does help move them through those team development stages. You're bringing them into the workplace and you're telling them that you need to come in here so that you can spend time together. During the pandemic, we had this wonderful thing, Zoom and Skype and Microsoft Teams. As a leader, I shouldn't spend my time with my subordinates only when we're having a meeting because then everybody's spending their time with me. They're not really spending their time with each other. We want to get people to use those technology advantages so that they can talk with each other on a regular basis. As the leader, if you start pushing yourself to spend more time talking with them when they're not in a formal meeting using Zoom and Skype and Microsoft Teams, then they'll start to have that bonding.

You still need to do things that are from a team building perspective. One of my clients, I had them doing once a month, we were doing Family Feud. They complained about it initially. They go, "That's really detracting from the work." I'm going, "Yes, detracting a little bit from the work." They're not going to go get as many to-dos done that day, but they will have the opportunity to learn about each other. Initially, I got a whole lot of pushback about Family Feud. We're going to spend an hour or half an hour doing that. Over a period of time, they started to get used to it. We know we're doing that on Thursday afternoon, so everybody wants to do it. Then I kind of tied in, "Okay, so we're going to do it this Thursday afternoon, but I need everybody to come into the workplace for it." They're excited about coming into the workplace.

Stop and think about it, in the Washington metro area, bare minimum, you're going to commute for 45 minutes to two hours. Depending upon how bad it is. 45 minutes to two hours. By the time you get to the workplace, you're already tired and aggravated. Now, you're going to work for eight hours and then you're going to go home for another 45 minutes to two hours and you're going to be aggravated when you get back there, which is going to tick off everybody at home. We're doing those kinds of things to people and that tears away at productivity. There are two things if you're going to do that experiment on tele-work. If you get the privilege of tele-work, we should see greater productivity and greater work-life balance.

If we're getting more productivity, but work-life balance is starting to decrease and it does for some people, then that's a problem we need to look at. Microsoft during the pandemic, they reported that one of their biggest problems, one of their biggest challenges was burnout. I mean, could stop and think about it. You used to have to commute for half an hour to two hours to get into the workplace to work. Now, the computer's always right there. People are, instead of, "Okay, it's 6:00 PM and I'm going to stop working and spend the rest of the night with my family. Let me see if I can do a few more emails. Let me see if I can get a little bit more done." The next thing they know it's 9:00. Everybody's going to bid and you never saw them for the entire day. We ought to be getting those two things out of it.

Tony Lee: Perfect sense. You talked to the CEO who says, "Well, I got a different approach. I'm going to automate some of the jobs around here. In fact, I've got some interesting stats here from WTW. The number of companies in the US that plan to automate some of their operations is expected to climb to 74% in three years, up from 65% this year and 51% three years ago." Is automation and AI the secret to boosting productivity? You just eliminate people, you don't need them anymore.

Art Jackson: There are some things that I believe computers will never be able to do. Computers operate off of what's been programmed into them. Computers don't have gut feels. I don't think computers would be completely effective when it comes to things like leadership and performance management. All a computer can do is check the number of widgets, and that's kind of it. A computer will never be able to look at someone and say, "Yeah, he did 15 widgets, but we think with some additional assistance he can get to 17." We should look at those things as ways of almost being one of our partners as we do work. I've got all of my human team members and I've got this computer system that's going to help us.

It's going to boost our productivity. A buddy of mine, I sent articles out to my coaching clients and he told me one night, he said, "I can increase your speed on doing those articles." I said, "Great. How are we going to do that?" He goes, 'I got a system. It's AI. It's going to work great for you." I go, "Okay." He got me on the computer. I started typing, and then the computer filled in about three paragraphs. I typed a little bit more. It filled in another three paragraphs. We got to the end of it. Now, I've got a full article that's been written, but it wasn't me. A lot of the spirit I would've put into it, a lot of the humor I would've put into it, none of that's there. Information, but none of that other stuff that makes the article readable. We want to use those things. We want those advantages, but you can never take people out of it. Because that's the thing that makes it us.

Tony Lee: Absolutely. Before we wrap up, I want to come back around to employee engagement. It seems like if companies are taking steps to really engage and retain people that, that's going to address productivity. Do you buy that?

Art Jackson: Yes, I do. I do. I think the longer you have somebody on your team, the more productive they can be. It's like having a knife that you're sharpening. A lot of those older ones work a whole lot better than the newer ones because you had them for a long time. The edges really gotten fine on it. A lot of the little micro-fusions in the blade and everything, a lot of those have been filled in. It's a lot better. We want people to almost be on a, that's probably a bad way of saying it, but a conveyor belt. They come in, we start training them. We get them into being part of the team. They've gone through those stages and they're getting more and more skilled, more and more experienced.

We're making sure that they take the formal education and that they get the certifications and they're moving along that conveyor belt. Now, we've got to remember to keep bringing folks in on the bottom end of it so that we've got a full funnel going all the time. It also means that we have to create new things on the other end of it. They came in as a junior widget manufacturer. They're not going to be a junior widget manufacturer for their entire career. We've got to have other things for them to move into. One of the things that I do with coaching clients, when we start off, I want their position descriptions. I also want the position description and the resume for the two levels that are above them.

They're looking at me and go, "Why do I want those?" I'm going, "Because it gives us breadcrumbs. It'll allow us to know what you need to do from where you are right now in order to move into those positions." For a bonus to it, when they go in and tell their boss, "I'm working with a new coach. He wants your position description and your resume, because it's going to help me understand what I need to do in order to move to that position." Every single time they come back and go, "My boss was smiling when I asked for her resume." I'm going, "Yeah, because she feels good about it." Those are some of the things that we want to do.

Tony Lee: That's great. Great advice. Well, that is going to do it for today's episode of All Things Work. A big thank you to Art Jackson for sharing his insights on workplace productivity. Before we get out of here, I want to encourage everyone to follow All Things Work wherever you listen to your podcasts. Also, listener reviews have a real impact on a podcast visibility. If you enjoyed today's episode, please take a moment to leave a review and help others find the show. Finally, you can find all of our episodes on our website at Thanks for listening, and we'll catch you next time on All Things Work.

Speaker 4: Every leader wants their employees to live and work happily ever after. Thankfully, you don't need a magic wand or a fairy godmother to make that dream come true. HR, payroll, and workforce management solutions from UKG give you the tools you need to support and celebrate all of your people. Now, you can make your fairytale workplace a reality with UKG.