We would all like to have a more productive work culture and cross off as many items on our to-do lists as possible. But to prevent wasted time and energy, you first have to get clear about your definitions, says Massachusetts-based consultant Ann Latham. "Employees must understand what success looks like in order to achieve it," she says. "Most people are blind to how much time they and their organization are wasting. The farther they are from the production line, where both flow and snags are usually quite conspicuous, the more true this is. Companies that would never tolerate frequent disruptions to a production line tolerate cumbersome decision-making, confusing roles and responsibilities, lengthy and worthless meetings, and much, much more on a daily basis."

Defining true productivity is particularly critical for middle market companies, which (due to their greater size) have likely built up more bureaucratic processes over time compared to startups, yet must manage their bottom line more carefully than large corporations, for whom a little wasted time and effort is only a rounding error. Middle market companies are in the perfect position to see a meaningful ROI from productivity improvements. So how can you do it? Latham offers three tips to make your company's work culture more productive.

  1. Real productivity requires staff to buy in. Making your company more productive is a nice thought, but if your employees hear that as "now, you have to do more work for the same salary," they'll almost certainly resist. Instead, make sure your intentions are clear and that they understand the benefits they'll see (fewer frustrating meetings, less wasted time, and so on). "Ownership stems from an appreciation of a goal's importance, especially the what's-in-it-for-me quotient," says Latham. "Measurement comes next. People like to see their own improvement in areas they care about. Explain the importance, be sure employees see how they contribute, and figure out how to assess improvement."
  2. Productivity isn't about quantity. The language around productivity often implies doing more at a faster pace, but that shouldn't be the case. "We need results, not busyness or completed tasks," says Latham. "If you can get results by skipping tasks, that's far better than figuring out how to mark it 'complete' faster. The talk must be about results and value, not about tasks. Managers must model and encourage questions that clarify objectives and reveal obstacles that are assumed to be immovable. What decision are we making? What will be different when this meeting ends? What are we trying to accomplish? What prevents us from doing this in half the time?" Asking those questions can lead to real breakthroughs.
  3. Flexibility isn't the enemy. There's plenty of debate about whether increased workplace flexibility (such as telecommuting, job sharing, or nontraditional hours) increases or diminishes productivity. But when it comes to knowledge workers, Latham says concerns are misplaced. "Supervisors often fear flexible work options because they're afraid they won't know if the employee is really working," she says. But that's a sign of a deeper problem. "Anyone with that complaint is obviously unaware of the results their people are achieving. If you focus on outcomes and not seat time or other inputs, it is pretty easy to tell if the work is getting finished. If expected outcomes are clear, you should have no qualms about granting greater flexibility. Productivity will either go up or down. It's pretty simple. If you don't know whether your employees are productive now, you won't know whether they are productive under flexible options, either."

Increasing your company's productivity leads to a clear competitive advantage. If you can help your employees understand the benefits, focus on real results, and embrace flexibility, your business can accomplish much more.

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Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.