Take 5: How to Increase Your Office's Productivity
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Strategy Operations Leadership Jul 5, 2019

Take 5: How to Increase Your Office’s Productivity

Research-backed tips for improving workflows and discouraging slacking.

A programmer writes code while a colleague looks on, taking notes.

Lisa Röper

Summer can be brutal for workplace productivity.

Family getaways and hotdog-roasting holidays lure employees away for long stretches. Even when the out-of-office replies are off, daydreams of basking in the sun can make it hard for anyone to focus on work.

Want to fight the summer slump? Research from Kellogg faculty explores how organizations can keep personnel motivated and operations on track year-round.

1. Offer the Right Incentives

The lure of career advancement can keep employees working hard when they’d rather be at the beach. But what’s an organization to do when there are not plentiful promotions to hand out?

Michael Powell, associate professor of strategy, and colleagues built a mathematical model to investigate how companies facing this constraint can best use incentives to motivate employees.

In larger companies, for example, which tend to have many entry-level employees per manager, it is difficult to get one of the few top spots. Since workers are not as likely to get promoted, the model revealed, the firm has to dangle a more appealing carrot—in this case, a much larger salary—to keep them working hard.

Similarly, in flat organizations, with very few opportunities for promotions between entry-level and top jobs, financial incentives can help motivate employees. But while a one-time bonus may lead to short-term improvements, the research showed that offering benefits like stock options can help ensure that workers stay productive in the long run.

Furthermore, when you do use promotions as an incentive, it’s important to plan ahead.

“If you’re going to promise people that if they work for you for three years, they’re going to get promoted, you need to make sure that you need people at higher-level positions three years from now,” Powell says.

2. Rethink the Workflow

Simply changing how tasks are organized can help workers achieve more in less time.

A prime example: Italian appellate labor courts. These courts, which handle cases having to do with firings and pensions, are notoriously slow, with cases taking 4.7 times longer than the average case in other developed countries.

Robert Bray, an associate professor of operations, and Nicola Persico, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, found that much of this inefficiency results from how judges schedule their cases. Judges typically put each new hearing at the end of the queue, finding the first open slot in the calendar and filling it.

Bray, Persico, and coauthors worked with appellate labor court judges in Rome to implement a new scheduling method over three years. They had six judges estimate the number of hearings the case would require and schedule all of them at the outset, leaving just enough time between them for lawyers to prepare for the next hearing.

This new method cut the time it took to resolve a case by 19 percent relative to judges who used the traditional method. The gain in efficiency comes from the fact that when hearings are scheduled in advance, and are grouped close together, a case moves through the system quickly once it reaches the first hearing.

“If we can teach these Italian justices to do it better,” Persico says, “then presumably there’s work to be done in teaching employees to schedule their own workflow better.”

3. Keep the Free-Riders at Bay

The temptation to shirk at work can be especially strong on a team project, where others can step in to pull the weight for a freeloading colleague.

George Georgiadis, associate professor of strategy at Kellogg, has proposed a clever way to get around this free-rider problem: When teammates have to put something tangible on the line—such as cash—it can encourage everyone to behave in ways that are efficient for the whole group, rather than just for themselves.

Georgiadis and a coauthor formulated a theoretical situation in which everyone working on a long-term project contributes incremental fees to a third party until the project is complete. These accumulating fees act as a tax or penalty for freeloading, forcing individual teammates to internalize the costs of the group’s inefficiencies.

“There is huge value for the experienced people to showcase and share their work, especially with the folks who just started.”

— Jan Van Mieghem

The exact amount that teammates contribute might differ from one individual to the next, based on factors like the size of their role or their productivity.

Importantly, each teammate’s contribution increases as the project nears completion. This, Georgiadis explains, is because the temptation to freeload increases as you approach the finish line. “My temptation to free ride, to skip an hour of work, when we’re close to completion is big, because I’m working really hard.”

4. Leave the Training to the Experts

When trying to master a new skill, it’s tempting to speed up the learning curve by studying a colleague’s work, rather than figuring it out on your own.

But that strategy can sometimes slow you down, according to research by operations professor Jan Van Mieghem.

Van Mieghem and coauthors analyzed the behavior of thousands of eBay data analysts. They wanted to know which method improved an analyst’s programming skills faster: writing code on their own (“learning by doing”) or looking at other analysts’ work (“learning by viewing”).

They found that viewing the work of veteran programmers indeed helps analysts code faster. But viewing the work of inexperienced coders—even those who are perceived as programming superstars—can actually be detrimental to productivity, perhaps because amateur code can confuse analysts or set them on the wrong path, wasting their time.

“There is huge value for the experienced people to showcase and share their work, especially with the folks who just started,” Van Mieghem says. “But maybe we should say to the rookies, ‘You guys can view [others’ work], but you don’t have to share yours yet.”

5. Build a Better Schedule

Scheduling difficulties can leave even a high-functioning workplace scrambling. So it may be worth reconsidering whether your scheduling system needs an update.

A study simulated how hospitals can better schedule their operating rooms—and found savings of about 20%.

Surgical operations and associated hospitalizations generate about 70% of total hospital revenues, but ORs are costly to operate ($1000 per hour is typical). So optimizing OR scheduling is a top priority for administrators.

“They need to allocate rooms while both honoring the requests of surgeons and keeping costs in check,” says Chaithanya Bandi, an associate professor of operations.

Bandi and a coauthor found that hospitals generally keep more ORs at the ready than might be needed at any given time in order to accommodate unpredictable surgeon requests.

Using 18 months of surgical scheduling data shared by a large hospital, the researchers developed an innovative algorithm to improve OR operations, minimizing the number of ORs hospitals had to keep open, while still honoring surgeon requests.

The optimization algorithm could also be used in other facilities where capacity is requested at unpredictable times, and where it’s not clear how long a given project will take.

Featured Faculty

Associate Professor of Strategy

Associate Professor of Operations

John L. and Helen Kellogg Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences; Director of the Center for Mathematical Studies in Economics & Management; Professor of Weinberg Department of Economics (courtesy)

Associate Professor of Strategy

A. C. Buehler Professor; Professor of Operations

Previously a member of the Operations Department faculty at Kellogg.

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