Thirty years ago, I was one of three full-time speechwriters working for a Fortune 500 company. Our boss wrote speeches part-time and supervised us. This was a fairly typical set-up for speeches across the corporate world. Today, that company has no full-time speechwriter. The work and the need for the work are still there, but it’s parceled out, decentralized and included in a myriad of other responsibilities.
It’s the productivity squeeze, and it affects all of us, not just speechwriters. It’s been happening since the 1980s, as business starting finding ever more things to downsize, eliminate, consolidate, and outsource. All of this has come with a price, of course, including lack of trust, lack of faith, and a surplus of workplace stress. And how many memorable business speeches have you heard lately?
The reality is that virtually all of us work jobs that used to be done by at least two or three people. I spent a year at St. Louis Public Schools, doing a job that had previously been done by a staff of 13. Once I had a job where the work of three people was transferred to my team – but not the people to do the work. It nearly killed us. And then there’s the email monster, the most visible representation of the squeeze. I recently went on vacation for a week – and had almost 2,000 emails waiting for me when I came back.
The question is, how do you cope? How do you get the work done that has to get done? Can you break out of the “deal with it only when it’s a crisis” mentality?
I don’t believe there are any silver bullets here; the productivity squeeze has had significant staying power, and it’s not going away. But you can do things to cope and possibly even control it. Not everything has to be a crisis.
First, grasp the full scope of the work you’re responsible for. It’s usually more than you think, and it’s always more than the job description says.
Second, prioritize the work. All of us have experienced “the tyranny of the urgent at the expense of the important.” We know the important work that has to be done. And we know that the urgent work is often caused by someone else’s poor planning.
Third, work with your boss. Make sure he or she knows the limitations on people resources, including your own. If you have three major things that have to be done at the same time, ask your boss for help or to make the call on what has to be done first. I have found that, done right, this applies to both good boss and bad boss situations. No boss wants to look bad. It’s easier with a good boss, not impossible with a bad boss.
Fourth, be on constant alert for scope creep. It happens with every single job. Someone is really productive and does good work, and some small assignment gets added. And then another. And soon the employee is overwhelmed and floundering. Fight the creep!
Fifth, if you’re a boss, be a pit bull when it comes to others wanting someone on your team to do “a little job.” Learn to say no. Or learn to drop or postpone something when something gets added – and make sure all involved understand it. I have a friend whose most common expression is “it’s an important project but we just don’t have the capacity to take it on.” Over time, she was able to add two new positions to her team.
The squeeze will still squeeze. Mark Twain once said “it is characteristically American, always trying to get by at work shorthanded.” It’s more intense than in Twain’s day. But it can be managed.
And what did I do with those 2,000 emails? What do you think I did?
Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.