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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How employee attitude and mood affect productivity

By David Johnson

How far can processes go to improve productivity before human motivation interferes? It is a new development on the traveling salesman question.

The traveling salesman problem is essentially an extended word problem – if a single salesman needs to make stops at points A, B, and C, what is the most effective route he can take?

Shipping companies like UPS – whose entire business model is moving things from Point A to Point B most efficiently – have treated this as a routing problem. It handled inanimate objects, things that could be moved and controlled even if the pathways were very complex. Things that could be quantified. However, recent research indicates that the traveling salesman is more of a scheduling issue, a productivity issue that is as influenced by whimsical and transient moods as it is route and distance.

Productivity similar to logistics

Another way of looking at it is this. Productivity is more than just accomplishing some set number of tasks. It is accomplishing those tasks with minimal mistakes or minimal loss. Aggressive benchmarks can be set based on the numbers of a problem, but it takes a clear understanding of human motivations to maintain the quality of that work.

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A truly awesome story-within-a-story is this: when Bob Santilli (vice president at UPS) was describing a basic traveling salesman problem to an elementary school class, one little girl objected to his solution because her mom would never make the grocery store her first stop – the ice cream would melt before she made it home. On paper, it was the route that made the most sense, but in real life, there were other considerations which trumped it.

UPS has long been about counter-intuitive efficiency. They will run two trucks in opposite directions on the same road in a downtown district (for example), so neither ever has to make a left turn. That saves 50,000 miles a year and boosts the number of packages they deliver by 350,000.  But again, that is a routing problem, a numbers problem. A routing consideration is that, on average, a driver should take 9 seconds to select and drop off a package. A scheduling consideration tries to assess how accurate a driver can be at identifying that package and what can decrease his accuracy.

Employee motivation

Human motivations can be broken down into two categories:
  • Mood
  • Habit
No amount of routing solutions and rules can completely override those influences. One trucking company tries to look at anything that can impact a driver’s mood – a different start time, overtime, personal problems, changes in pay – to identify unhappy drivers. Unhappy drivers are inaccurate drivers, even on a prescheduled route. A research group found that after major disruptions in traffic patterns (such as the I35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis) permanently altered driving patterns – even after the problem was resolved – because it altered drivers’ habits.

Carry that assumption over to your office. What are the influences of mood and habit? Traffic patterns are a good analogy for work patterns in general. On a macro-scale, they can be analyzed and predicted, yet the influences at work in any given individual are subtle. Likewise, there are larger patterns that can be observed in an office or workplace, even as the actions of individual people may be less predictable.

Mood and habit operate in tandem, but on slightly different levels. Mood is personal, and driven largely by personal, external factors. Habit is communal, influencing a subset or all employees and originating from within the office culture. Like UPS’s routing algorithms, a manager has to be cognizant of both levels.

In some ways, mood is more direct. Mood is a reflection of problems or changes in an employee’s personal life which could impact their performance – a divorce, a new baby, being passed over for a promotion. While a manager cannot address the underlying issue, he can be aware of the implications of those changes and try to work with the employee to mitigate problems. This is particularly critical if the change stems from changes at work, such as an increased workload, changes in hours, or freezes in pay. These are training opportunities; for example, missing out on a promotion could be a good opportunity to examine their desired career goals and help them work toward it or to address performance problems. The key is flexibility – the mood is ultimately temporary, but the habits from that period may last much longer.

Habit is responsive, and that makes it more interesting from an organizational perspective. Habit is a reflection of the overall office culture. Robert Quinn wrote about a man who took a new job in a company that had a pervasive culture of lying, which he internalized and started becoming more distrustful.

There is science behind this. Psychology Today ran an article about how a pervasive negative culture leads to a variety of behaviors like criticism, competitiveness, and focusing on problems, whereas a positive culture resulted in higher creativity, better performance reviews, lower medical costs, and lower absenteeism (interestingly – not a direct parallel to the negative behaviors).

Corporate culture vs. employee motivation clash

For managers, that is a critical point to remember. Your office culture is not a thing separate from your employees.  It is training and molding your employees more persistently than any corporate training modules because it is continual and unrelenting. Yet, every employee responds uniquely to that culture. One man became distrustful, but others became dishonest in a corrosive environment. It had the same root cause, and that root cause was (probably) not rooted in a personal situation. It was a culture.

Identifying habits takes discernment. And it takes time to observe. What is, honestly, your office culture? There will be recurring traits and patterns – identify those first, and then start tracing back the cause. And don’t just look at negative behaviors – it is just as important to reinforce good habits as it is necessary to break bad ones.

The I35 bridge collapse permanently altered driving patterns in Minneapolis. It changed habits unexpectedly. As managers, we have to be aware of the habits of our office culture and what is creating those habits. We have to be aware of the patterns of behavior within our department and to know our employees well enough to understand the influences in their personal lives. A happy traveling salesman is a better salesman. Managers need to dedicate some time to understanding the mental processes of employees as part of planning efficient business processes.

About the author: For over 35 years, David Johnson has worked in large & small corporate settings with focus on marketing, strategy, employee productivity, interior design, and management techniques. More recently, he works with office design, productivity, and ergonomics. He writes regularly on business sites related to office culture, communication, and design and operates Conference Room Outfitters, a website dedicated to conference tables and accessories. You can follow him on Twitter (@bizoutfitter) and Google+.

 Image license: Photo provided by: smartphotostock.com