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Playing the efficiency game: How to win

Being an agency.

It seems as if we’re all time poor these days, so how do we go about getting more done in less time?

(Hint: Just reading about productivity doesn’t fix this problem)

We’ve been a digital agency for nearly 20 years so we’re tried pretty much every productivity tool in the book – and created a fair few home-brews. Sadly, most don’t work in the long-term and mostly that is for just one reason. Fix this problem and your life becomes immeasurably simpler which can increase your efficiency many times over.

Principles Trump Methods

You must focus on the problem areas and avoid looking for a silver bullet to fix all of the problems. If you really understand the nature of productivity then you can pick and choose the methods that best address your issues. Productivity App providers don’t have the same problems you have, nor do they understand which are critical so create a tool that doesn’t really fit – forcing that business to fit around the tool is like seeing every DIY problem as requiring a hammer.

“The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
— RALPH WALDO EMERSON

So you start with the core problems of the business at that given moment in time and work out what the real issues are – and not decide that “email is a bugbear” and install some email priority app that promises to rid you of that bugbear. Timeframe is the important stating point, what ails you now might lessen over time and new challenges may then appear. Understand that this is a moving target and be prepared to evolve.

Practical Examples

Service Level Problems
As a digital agency, a large part of our “challenge” is to provide world-class client service. The standard of this service is defined not by the agency, but by the client and their happiness level. Clients understand that your business is manned by real people, people who sometimes make mistakes and as a rule they are happy to tolerate mistakes and problems if you’re honest with them and keep them in the loop.

This is the principle, and there are many tools out there that provide a platform to do this. We use Zendesk Pro, but importantly we encourage and reward teamies to be honest, admit errors, take their time and communicate in a way that clients understand and can relate to. There is no pressure from management, or clients, to be perfect and as a result we’ve have a (very) close to 100% client satisfaction rate. The core principles of our support shine through our occasional mistakes and our clients see we really do want the best outcome.

Conversely, giving an over-stretched, poorly skilled support team an application such as Zendesk would actually make the problem worse. It would highlight human error, generate management pressure and leave clients wondering what was going on.

Drowning in Email
A very common one this, and it’s rarely fixed using cute “inbox organisers. Broadly, here are two sources of email (internal and external) and two types of email (direct and blanket) so it sounds that simple organiser app would do the trick – except that not really the issue.

Mostly, the issue revolves around the disruptive nature of Email. It easily disrupts the best planned week due to it’s intrusive nature – it’s all very well saying you’ll only read email twice a day but if email is your primary communication tool then that’s not very practical. The other great problem occurs when you try to use your inbox as a task list and stuff simply gets left in there to fester.

Shifting your communications to more appropriate channels is the simplest option and the easiest to implement. Start with internal communication and (largely) ban any form of internal email, especially the dreaded CC function and then move onto client and supplier communication. But do it in bite-sized chunks, for example:

  • All meetings (yuk) get booked through a calendar system. We use Google Calendar for all meetings, internal and external.
  • Internal chatter and collaboration moves to a channel built just for that. We use Slack.
  • Mass publications, circulars, notices etc are stored on web-server and individuals are notified via alerts
  • Specific HR functions such as expenses, time-recording, vacation days etc are handled through specific applications. We use many different ones here and try, where possible, to integrate these needs into existing applications that we use.
  • Invoices, statements, payment queries etc are all managed from our accounting systems. We use Quickbooks.
  • Project updates, discussion and approvals are managed via a PM platform. We use Basecamp.
  • Access, keys and security can be secured (email is very insecure) using an application such as LastPass.

The list goes on and on but I’m sure you get the drift. To help guide the principles, we banned internal email 5 years ago and restricted inbox sizes to 10 opened emails – it worked a treat and now email presents close to zero disruption for us.

Time Management

We all know that work expands to fill the available time, and some reputable research has been carried out to discover the ideal number of productive working hours in a week. You maybe surprised to find out that this number is less than 30, and closer to 20 hours per week. Yes, working more hours allows you to turn out more work, but it will be at a lower quality. So think carefully when and what you do during the working week, especially if you work in a creative industry (don’t we all?).

Fewer planned working hours gives you slack time to deal with emergencies, overflows, family or just a chance to think and reflect. In fact, we’re found that if you “allocate” a third of your working week to thinking, reading and reflecting you we actually become more productive in a quite a short time.

This sounds great but is a wholesale change from Henry Ford’s 8-hours working, 8-hours leisure and 8-hours rest. Changing peoples working hours and getting them to liberate themselves from fixed hours and moving to output-based work requires trust, education and leadership. Again, it all comes down to principles. You’d not be alone though, some of the most forward thinking companies are already working this way and I can assure you that productivity will go through the roof.

Since we move to total flexible time management in 2012 we’ve seen productivity increase 350% per working hour. This increase in productivity has been shared back with the team, who now work fewer hours, have better work/life/family balance and still manage to earn more. Everyone’s a winner.