7 ways to optimize IT team productivity during difficult times

May 20, 2020

Originally published on CIO.

Even in today’s challenging environment, inspiring staff members to function effectively isn’t as hard as many IT leaders believe. The secret lies in smart, adaptable management.

Optimizing IT team productivity is always a challenge, yet in today’s extraordinary business environment ensuring that IT is meeting or exceeding defined goals is a very tall order indeed.

These are the times that test an IT leader’s mettle. On the bright side, anyone who can expertly steer their department through today’s troubled waters will emerge from the current crisis with a solid reputation for achieving success under extreme duress.

Here are 7 ways to optimize IT team productivity, even when it seems like the whole world is falling apart.

1. Be open and available

Now is not the time to hide behind a closed office door. “The softer side of leadership has a bigger influence on productivity than anything else right now,” observes Jay Upchurch, CIO of analytics software firm SAS. Upchurch advises communicating with team members early and frequently, being empathetic, and taking time daily to express appreciation for hard work. “If we dedicate ourselves to that model, our IT productivity should remain high throughout this difficult time,” he states.

This is also no time to wield a heavy stick. While timeclock and other metrics are useful performance indicators, they should be regarded as a support and planning mechanism, not a punishment one, says Steph Crowe, head of global learning at payment solutions provider Ingenico. “Now is the time to check in with your people, not check up on them.”

2. Remain calm and steady

IT teams expect leaders to provide guidance and support, so it’s important not to lose control or to be seen as hesitant. “Be diligent about monitoring yourself and your anxiety,” advises Kevin J. Bailey, assistant dean for marketing/communications and CIO at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. Don’t let your anxiety lead to micromanagement. “It can be very demotivating for your team to get the feeling you don’t trust them to do their jobs,” he says.

Even when global chaos reigns, it’s important to promote stable on-site and remote work environments. “Everyone is dealing with personal issues in relation to this pandemic, so it’s important to try to maintain a sense of calm and provide teams with instructions to help them adapt to a mobile workforce,” says Sheila Carpenter, CIO at email security services provider Zix. “On the business side, having a crisis plan and ensuring business continuity is paramount.”Looking to upgrade your career in tech? This comprehensive online course teaches you how. ]

3. Stay in close touch with your team

During the current crisis, it’s essential for IT teams to remain in constant contact with leaders and colleagues through communication and collaboration technologies such as Zoom, WebEx, Slack and Microsoft Teams. Accurate project, ticket and task management is essential for ensuring that everyone is working on the highest priority items first.

“IT teams should institute a triage process for the most critical end-user issues,” suggests Tim Bowers, founder and managing partner at virtual law firm VLP Law Group. “Our IT team also uses a specific method for tracking and documenting progress on tickets and tasks, so that one person can pass a task along and another can seamlessly pick up right where the last person left off.”

Be deliberate and regular about checking in as a team. The Whitman School of Management’s IT unit has a team meeting scheduled at the same time every weekday morning. “Everyone has their cameras on, so we get facetime with each other,” Bailey says. “It’s a time for everyone to get answers to the questions they need to get their day off to the best start possible.”

Bailey says he strives to maintain a regular routine that’s designed to promote productivity, professionalism and other positive behaviors. “I set the expectation that my team will be on camera for every meeting,” he states. Besides allowing staff and management to set and track goals, discuss assignments and resolve problems, the videoconference also encourages participants to comb their hair and wear decent clothing. “It helps them psychologically prepare for ‘going to work,'” Bailey notes.

4. Stay coordinated

With business priorities in a state of flux, IT leaders should work to ensure that all team members are aware of their tasks, and know how and when they should be working on them.

“Priorities have shifted, and you shouldn’t assume your group knows what’s important during this transition,” says Jason Viera, CTO of Carousel Industries, a managed services and cloud services provider. “Clearly outline the priorities and let everyone know how progress — and success — will be measured.” Viera also recommends keeping staff members updated on completed work as well as future tasks. “This keeps everyone focused on the right goals,” he explains.

Viera also stresses the importance of limiting workgroups to manageable sizes. “If your conference platform has a breakout room feature, use it so people can talk in smaller groups about targeted issues without derailing the broader conversation,” he advises. Team members should also be asked to refrain from performing side tasks, such as emailing or texting, during group meetings. “By focusing on the discussion, everyone will accomplish more,” Viera observes.

5. Establish efficient processes

Crowe says she’s a strong believer in using a tiered support approach that matches the toughest tasks to IT team members possessing the highest-level skills. “How-to queries and recurring issues really should be supported through brief, but relevant, job aids or infographics, or even brief training videos, easily accessed through a knowledgebase,” she notes. “Let the IT team members dig into the tough troubleshooting problems — it’s what most of us who love technology enjoy anyway.”

While a well-designed ticketing system optimizes IT productivity during ordinary times, it really proves its value when team members are scattered across locations. “The system or application doesn’t have to be top of the line; it just has to have the ability to track requests, be visible to all team members, assign IT personnel to the work and update status of the work as it flows through the process,” suggests Ilona Davis, a principal in the business and technology practice at accounting and consulting firm Baker Newman Noyes.

Rich Gilbert, senior vice president and chief digital information officer at insurance provider Aflac, says the current crisis forced him to reinvent the way his agile teams work. “For agile IT teams, this means using collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack to maintain the pace of our projects,” he explains. “Despite the disruption of the pandemic, productivity has kept at-pace across the board in terms of what we’ve seen with our deliveries.”

Automation is another way IT leaders can maximize productivity without relying on on-premises personnel. “Automating common tasks and fixes, and remotely monitoring and managing machines, results in dramatic increases in efficiencies,” Bowers says. “With our team, if a remote laptop has a low diskspace alert, it opens a ticket automatically and kicks off a script to clear off unnecessary temporary files,” he says. VLP also uses scripted automation to uninstall legacy apps and install fresh replacements. “This allows our team to deploy new apps on the weekend, with less impact on the end users.”

6. Acknowledge and reward achievements

Recognizing achievements, large and small, encourages productivity by affirming that individual and team work is both important and appreciated. “This type of communication plays a big part in maintaining engaged employees and overall productivity,” Gilbert advises.

With all but a handful of team members now working remotely, Gilbert admits he’s had to devise with some creative ways to maintain employee engagement and boost morale. “We’ve had a few virtual happy hours over videoconference, and I’ve sent out video messages to my entire division,” he notes. “I also do personal check-ins with my team.”

Bowers suggests offering micro-bonuses to team members for various types of achievements. “For example, if an end-user gives a support tech a good rating, that tech earns a few bonus dollars,” he explains. Bowers also likes the idea of allowing team members to give each other small cash awards for providing above-and-beyond assistance to a colleague or customer. “These awards can be cashed in for gift cards or other prizes,” he says.

7. Be supportive

Stressing the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance allows team members to feel supported and appreciated. “Offering flexibility and being sympathetic to changing schedules or home life priorities during this difficult time will help employees stay productive,” Carpenter recommends.

Consider each staff member’s unique circumstances. There may be a need, for instance, to schedule shifts to accommodate personal life demands, such as when there are children at home, Davis says. “IT leaders should embrace the flexibility afforded by the technology that supports the remote work environment and adjust expectations accordingly,” she notes.

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