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Management Challenge: Employees with "Time Management" problems

by Bruce TulganMarch 2016

   What is to be done with employees who simply cannot live by a simple schedule? Tardiness, leaving early, and taking too many breaks: These issues seem so petty as performance problems go. Why do these problems nag away at managers?

   In some cases, managers are right to attribute these problems to an employee’s blasé attitude or a lack of care, consideration, or diligence. When that’s the source of the problem, there is no substitute for constant reminders in your regular one-on-ones. Just by focusing on it, you are likely to make it better, at least for a little while:

   You say: “You’re late.”
 
      Employee: “I know. I’m sorry. I overslept.”

      You: “You are supposed to be on time.”

      Employee: “I know. I’m sorry. There was bad traffic.”

      You: “You need to be on time.”

      Employee: “Yes. I’ll try to do better.”

   Then, probably, the employee is going to be on time the next day. Maybe he will be on time for a while. Until the next time he’s late. Do you have the same conversation again? How many times? You have to be the judge of when too much is too much. When somebody does actually get fired for coming in late (or leaving early, or taking too many breaks), everybody else usually gets the message. At least for a while.

   Believe it or not, some people, by the time they come to work for you, have never really mastered the fundamentals of living by a schedule. You might be the first person to hold them accountable for being “on time.” In the process, you might end up doing this person a huge favor.

   I’ve heard countless stories like this one from a very experienced call center manager: “I had one employee who was always on time for the evening shift but always late for the early morning shift. Sometimes it makes sense to just put someone like that on the late shift where he is on time. Of course, I didn’t want to reward him for being late in the morning, but I also didn’t want to keep setting him up for failure by having him do the early morning shift because he was obviously having a hard time with that. Funny enough, when I talked with him about it, it turned out that he preferred the early morning shift! The early morning shift was the tougher one to staff, so it’s good to have people who want to work the early morning. I just had to figure out a way to manage him to success.

   “This guy was young and inexperienced and he confessed that he really needed some help. I had to help him learn how to be on time. So I taught him how to make and use a schedule: At first, I wrote out a schedule for him, working backward from the 5:00am start time: ‘Walk in the front door here at work at 4:55 a.m. That means driving away from home by 4:30am. That means you need to be out of bed by 3:45am. What time do you need to get to sleep the night before?’” The manager went on: “We made that little schedule and then I used that schedule to really talk him through it. I think it helped him to just have it spelled out.”

   What about employees who sneak out early?

   Sometimes they are just helping themselves to a little free time. Others might have obligations after work that leave them pressed for time. You might have to talk through with them the after work schedule so they make sure they push back any obligations to a time that does not require them to leave early. Talk through what it is going to take for that person to stay all the way until the end of his scheduled work obligations. Spell it out. Break it down. Follow up. One technique I’ve seen managers use is to schedule some very concrete to-do items for the employee during the last hour of his work time in order to help him stay focused up to the last minute.

   What about employees who take too many breaks and waste time at work?

   The answer is the same. Talk about it in no uncertain terms. Spell out what’s required: At work you are expected to be focused on getting work done very well very fast all day long. Everyone has time wasters, but nobody can afford them. Help people identify their big time wasters and eliminate them altogether.

   Most employees have more to do at work than they can fit into their work schedules and more they want to do outside work than they can do in their limited free time. Many are chronically overtired and seriously overscheduled. If they are chronically late, leave early, and take too many breaks, there is a good chance they would benefit greatly from some aggressive coaching on time-management.

   Setting priorities is usually step one in most time-management programs and seminars. If you have limited time and too much to do, then you need to set priorities—an order of precedence or preference—so that you control what gets done first, second, third, and so on. That setting priorities is the key to time management is obvious to most professionals. The hard part is teaching employees how to set priorities.

   When it comes to big-picture priorities, help them set clear priorities and communicate about those priorities relentlessly. Make sure your direct-reports are devoting the lion’s share of their time to first and second priorities. When it comes to setting day-to-day priorities, teach them how by setting priorities together with them. Let them know your thinking process. Walk through it with them: “This is first priority because X. This is second priority because Y. This is low priority because Z.” Over time, you hope they learn. Until they learn, you have to keep making decisions with them or for them. Teach them to postpone low-priority activities until high-priority activities are well ahead of schedule. Those are the time windows during which lower-priority activities can be accomplished, starting with the top lower priorities, of course. Time wasters, on the other hand, should be eliminated altogether whenever possible.

   One of the best gifts you can give anybody is teaching them how to maintain an old-fashioned time log to begin to understand how they actually use their time inside and outside of work. That way, they can start planning their time more effectively and eliminate time wasters. The tool is simple enough and the idea is that an individual keeps track almost minute by minute of what she is doing. Each time the person changes from one activity to another, she notes briefly the time and the activity:

   6:15 a.m. Wake, etc

   6:47 a.m. Dressed, having breakfast

   7:14 a.m. In car leaving home

   7:49 a.m Sat down at my desk, read over to-do list, set priorities for the day

   8:10 a.m. Got up to use bathroom and get coffee

   8:28 a.m. Sat back down at desk, opened e-mail

   8:29 a.m. Started preparing response to e-mail from manager

   8:40 a.m. Incoming phone call from Jones

   9:15 a.m. Continued preparing response to e-mail

   9:25 a.m. Got up to chat with Smith

   And so on. Used properly, a time log can be a powerful reality check and source of insight about how to help someone get much better at managing his time. Anyone can benefit from a time log, but anyone who is struggling to stay on time will almost surely benefit. Ask that person to use a time log and bring it into your regular one-on-ones. Use the data from the time log to coach the person to look for opportunities to eliminate time wasters, put priorities in order, make a realistic schedule, and live by it.

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