7 tips to make your employees happier, more creative and productive

Shrinking office
In this 2013 file photo, Jamie Korzan, foreground, an assistant property manager at Cassidy Turley, and her co-workers at the commercial real estate service provider worked in the IDS Center in downtown Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The day for many American office workers is often filled with meetings, a flood of emails and too many phone calls. Teresa Amabile, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, researches worker productivity and thinks all these daily tasks can zap the creative energy that businesses need to innovate.

Amabile's solution: Do less.

"Companies are trying to get people to do more," she said on The Daily Circuit. "Fewer people are doing the jobs of what used to be done by many more people... This is actually counterproductive because when people are constantly on the work treadmill, they don't have time to think, they don't have time to actually be creative in solving problems or coming up with new ideas, and they lose their energy. Put simply, they stop being as engaged in their work, they're less productive, they're less creative."

A recent article in The Economist taps into the same idea:

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Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate e-mails because it requires little effort and no thought. An entire management industry exists to spin the treadmill ever faster.

All this "leaning in" is producing an epidemic of overwork, particularly in the United States. Americans now toil for eight-and-a-half hours a week more than they did in 1979. A survey last year by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost a third of working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night. Another survey last year by Good Technology, a provider of secure mobile systems for businesses, found that more than 80% of respondents continue to work after leaving the office, 69% cannot go to bed without checking their inbox and 38% routinely check their work e-mails at the dinner table.


1. Managers should stop and think about the day-to-day experience of their employees.

"I think they are so concerned... about competitive forces, what's happening in the marketplace, what's happening globally, what are our competitors doing, that they're not really paying attention to what's going on day-to-day with the people who are trying to execute the company strategy," Amabile said. "So I think that in part it's benign neglect."

2. Encourage and make time in the day for breaks.

"In a workday, if people can change their physical setting for a brief period of time, maybe even just get outside and walk around the building... that can do a lot to recharge people," she said.

Some companies allow employees to take quick naps and provide spaces to do so.

3. Let your employees surf the Internet.

Harvard Business School doctoral student Andrew Brodsky is currently doing research that suggests allowing employees to access the Internet at work after they complete a task can actually lead them to work faster, with no decrease in quality.

4. Give employees meaningful deadlines to inspire creativity and protect them from distractions.

Amabile tells the Harvard Gazette: "[People] have to feel like they're on a mission. They have to understand why it's important to get it done now; otherwise, it's like a death march. Meaningfulness is important, as is understanding the urgency, buying into it, and being able to focus."

In order for these deadlines to be successful, she says, managers need to make an effort to free the employee from the daily distractions.

5. Allow employees to work some of their hours away from the office.

"It really is extremely beneficial for individuals who have a lot of thinking work to do to be able to do at least some of that in a place of their own choosing, whether it's a coffee shop, whether it's their home office," Amabile said.

On The Daily Circuit page, Lynne wrote about her experience being self-employed and working from home.

"I cannot get any work done in an office," she wrote. "In the past, when I've worked in offices and tried to get work done, I've actually been reprimanded for wearing headphones in order to work because it seems 'anti-social' and was told to work less and socialize more. Distractions, noises, chatty coworkers, endless pointless meetings and office politics are all anti-work and kill creativity."

6. Sit down with each employee and discuss his or her workday.

It's important for managers to understand what employees do during the day. A quick rundown of their daily tasks could help both of you identify unnecessary work that could be eliminated or changed.

7. Need some examples of workplaces that foster creativity? Check out Google and SAS for ideas.

Google is known for its main campus in California, which includes game rooms, cruiser bikes and cafeterias that encourage employees to get away from their work space and talk to coworkers in other environments. SAS, an analytics software company, is known for its flexible work schedules and job-sharing opportunities. It also offers health care on campus.


How leaders kill meaning at work
Senior executives routinely undermine creativity, productivity, and commitment by damaging the inner work lives of their employees in four avoidable ways. (McKinsey Quarterly)

The Pomodoro Technique
Francesco Cirillo created the Pomodoro Technique in the 1980s after a long search to improve his own study habits. The technique caught on with professional teams in the '90s.

Ordered Chaos - Productivity for Creative People
If you've got a well-established daily routine, and/or solid systems for capturing and processing all your to-do list items, it's much easier to allocate time to focused creative work, secure in the knowledge that you'll deal with everything else in good time. (The Creative Pathfinder)

• Video: Teresa Amabile on The Progress Principle at TEDxAtlanta