While we all want to find a level of meaning and purpose in our work, often, some fraction of our time has to be spent doing tasks that have no intrinsic meaning and serve no deeper purpose than helping to keep the workplace trains running.
Here are a few techniques I suggest to help shrink the amount of time employees spend on grunt work, while still getting it done:
1. Impose constraints.
If an employee is filling their days with low-level tasks that could be completed in much less time, impose a time constraint. Morning email needs to be answered by 10 a.m. Calls need to be returned within one hour. The previous week’s data needs to be compiled and reported by Monday at 4 p.m.
Time management is a skill that many need help to learn, and as a manager, you may need to be the teacher. Expect some pushback — an employee is likely to say that they can’t complete X task in half the time. But push them to at least try. They may surprise themselves. And an often overlooked upside is that a ho-hum task can become a more engaging challenge when a time constraint is imposed.
2. Dangle the carrot.
What is the more interesting work that the employee would like to be doing? What is your vision of what the employee could be doing for the firm? Have the conversation. Help the employee visualize the new opportunities that could complement their ordinary tasks. Perhaps pair the employee with a more mature worker who can mentor them in time management and also inspire with a glimpse of the different types of work the firm engages in. Adding more-appealing work to their portfolio will compel them to shrink the amount of time they spend on lower-value work.
3. Shake the stick.
A dangled carrot is positive motivation, but consequences can be effective as well. Employees who spend hours on tasks that really are not that important are not spending their time on the right things. Establish goals for an employee’s most value-added work, and consequences if they don’t meet those goals.
Shrinking the amount of time your employee is spending on the dull tasks should help mitigate their frustration at having to do them at all. If it doesn’t, you may need to have a larger conversation about their career goals and whether they can meet them in their current role, or even at your firm.
4. Remind them that positivity itself is promotable.
When you hire or promote someone, it’s because of the tasks you think they can do for your organization. But you also want to hire people who have a good attitude — who will pitch in and do what needs to be done. Sometimes taking care of the grunt work is just about showing that you can be a team player with a great attitude. If a manager can trust you with the boring stuff, then you can definitely be trusted with the exciting stuff. Remind your employee that sometimes, it’s not about what you’re doing but how you go about doing it.
5. Model the behavior.
So much work is invisible. We know what we’re spending time on, but does anyone else? When an employee complains about the scut work they have to do, it’s probably because they don’t see how much scut work everyone — including their boss — has to do. Make the work on your team more transparent. Talk to the employee about how everyone — even you — has to spend a certain percentage of their time on these kinds of tasks. Make sure your team sees you occasionally taking on these tasks.
These techniques will work for you as well. Outline your own objectives and practice the discipline to achieve them. Establish time limits for accomplishing unpleasant tasks, a schedule for completing less-than-thrilling projects and reward yourself for achieving these goals. Have a negative consequence in mind if you don’t make the effort and impose the consequence if you should. Also recognize that this is an opportunity to shine. Inexperience has the advantage of fresh eyes. If some of your work is too time-consuming, try to innovate a more efficient process that hasn’t yet occurred to your boss or coworkers.