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October - 2008 - issue > People Manager
Staying FocusedThe Need of the Hour
C. Mahalingam
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Organizations represent the microcosm of the society in general. There are as many distractions to divert one's attention from the work spot as you can count on a daily basis. Events that are external to the organizations and those that are internal and peculiar to particular organizations impact the employees and occupy their attention. Just a walk on the corridors of corporations will make one recognize the prevalent moods and vibes. For the last couple of weeks, it is the news of the collapse of a bunch of global financial institutions that were regarded for decades as mighty and sound that makes the rounds. While the current happenings on the Wallstreet have a perceptible, and not very positive, impact on the information technology sector in India, particularly those that have had a lion’s share of the financial services clients in their portfolios, there is a general sense of uneasiness in the corridors of almost all the companies in the IT industry. Cafeteria and coffee machine corners have become the prime spots for sharing and starting grapevine.

There is some goodness in employees speaking about the 'current scene'. It gets the pressure off their chests. It makes them become better informed. Having said this, if this is not managed well, this can become a huge distraction and a cause for loss of productivity. In this situation, periodic communication, as frequent as once a week, becomes a top priority for leaders in organizations across levels. The biggest challenge is getting people focused. Studies have estimated that when a company goes through any major change program like merger, the productivity loss on account of employee anxiety and associated heightened grapevine communication can be as high as 30 percent for fairly prolonged periods before, during, and after implementation of such a change. I would hazard a guess that during times of uncertainty like the current crisis confronting the financial sector and the IT sector that is thriving heavily on the financial sector, the loss of productivity would be as high or even higher. And this is too serious a matter to be ignored. When unattended, the productivity losses can hurt the delivery, client satisfaction, and the revenue earnings making matters worse.

Staying focused is the name of the game and managers across organizational levels have a key role to play. Crazy times call for crazy ideas. And the current mood is as crazy as it can be to call for such ideas to get people on track and keep them focused. Here are some ideas that managers can consider: Step up the business updates. Provide people with as much positive news about the company's performance as possible and be realistic. Nothing keeps people focused as good business.

Ask people to share rumors they heard the previous week and address them well by providing as much information as feasible. Rumors can be about the industry in general or your company in particular.

Continue with the rewards and recognition programs as they spread a lot of positive vibes across the organization.

Share information about all the business wins regularly, no matter how small they are. Share the company’s point of view about how it intends to tide over the difficult times, what specific actions are being initiated and what is expected of employees in terms of specific actions and behavior.

Prepare a list of improvement actions and form focus groups to work on these. Defining clear outcome expectations and timeframes will get the employees focused on accomplishing the expectations. For example, cost-cutting programs, when handled by the employees, have a better chance of success. Review the progress, but let the initiative belong to the employees in these improvement initiatives.

Take stock of your Corporate Social Responsibility programs and give them a new thrust. Younger generation of employees take enormous pride in contributing to CSR programs and more often than not come forward to volunteer their time. And nothing helps manage undesirable distractions like serious community work.

Get internal competitions going or started. White paper competitions, for example, offer a great avenue to harnessing the positive energy of a lot of people. Brown bag lunch meetings, special interest group activities on technologies, and domains your company is working on are all great opportunities to get people focused and for diminishing distractions in a big way.

An important thing to remember is that managers can make a difference to their people and the organizations by ensuring that people stay focused in activities that generate positive energy and substantially diminish the distractions. Often, it is not unusual to come across a situation where managers are themselves distracted and as a result become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Human resource managers must invest time and initiate dialogues with the people managers to seek their help to keep their employees focused on productive and positive activities.

Organizations cannot wish away the distractions their employees go through or are subjected to. While it is important to know what is happening in the world outside, it is equally important and critical to know how to counter the negative impact of these distractions. Well thought out activities and programs with the active involvement of managers can be an effective cure. But the essential component in all these is, of course, timely action.

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