Expert Interview: How Teams Can Come up for Air and Reduce Burnout
February 9, 2023
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If you’re trying to do more with less, scale processes, increase efficiencies, and stay agile in your organization, then you’re not alone.
Organizations everywhere are facing these challenges to stay competitive and continue evolving in an ever-changing market.
In this expert interview, Nick Sonnenberg, a leading efficiency expert, author, speaker, and the founder and CEO of Leverage, shares insights and strategies from his new book Come Up For Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work.
Discover Nick’s advice for how teams can decrease unnecessary busy work, streamline processes, increase efficiency, and prevent burnout.
Q: You mention the missing link to creating efficient teams is aligning on when to use each tool. What’s your advice for how organizations and team members can best do this?
The missing link I see in many companies is a lack of alignment on when and how to use tools. For instance, one person primarily uses email, another prefers Slack, and someone else keeps track of everything in a spreadsheet. When everyone uses different tools in different ways, information starts to live in separate places, making work needlessly confusing.
I call this the “scavenger hunt,” when you spend more time searching for what you need than on the work itself!
This is often a result of people being over capacity, overworked, and short on time. In this mode, you prioritize getting things off your plate quickly. For example, you might send a document to your coworker via email because it’s easier in the moment. But the problem is your colleague doesn’t know where to look when they need to find that information next week or month. They’re thinking: “Was that in a Slack message? Is it in cloud storage? Was it in an email? Where can I find it?” So they end up on a scavenger hunt, searching for information by looking through all the places it may live.
The best way to overcome this inefficiency is to align your team on where information should live and stick to it. In Come Up for Air, I explain how to optimize for information retrieval instead of transfer.
Q: Can you describe your CPR® Framework?
I developed the CPR Framework out of necessity when my team and I were drowning in work. We were working overtime to catch up on tasks, yet we were barely moving the needle. I learned then that the problem wasn’t that there weren’t enough hours in the day but that we were using our time inefficiently.
When I looked closely at our processes, I discovered that most of the team’s time is wasted in minute inefficiencies and constant distractions that prevent them from accomplishing their work in an optimized time. And in consulting for thousands of companies, I’ve seen the same problems crop up time and time again.
So, the goal of the CPR Business Efficiency Framework is to help organizations optimize their Communications, Planning, and Resources to eliminate inefficiencies and pain points. By focusing on these three operational areas and using the right systems and tools, teams can increase their productivity and effectiveness.
Q: You talk about time not being linear and how specific times of the day or week are more valuable than others. How can someone determine their most high-value times, and what should they use these for?
This is something I think about a lot. Basically, certain times of the day or week are more valuable than others.
Your productivity and focus vary depending on the time of day, how rested you are, whether you have your laptop, etc. In other words, you may be able to work more efficiently at certain times of day than others. For example, you may be able to get more done first thing on a Monday morning after a relaxing weekend after you’ve done your morning routine and had coffee. But you probably won’t be as sharp at 4:00 pm on a Friday after you’ve been on Zoom all day and your brain is fried. So, it’s essential to know when you’re at your best and use that time wisely.
I recommend reserving those “high-value” times for activities that require mental effort and focus, such as strategy and planning. You can then schedule other tasks that don’t demand as much cognitive power, like attending status-update meetings and managing email, for a time when you know you’ll be less productive.
If you recognize these high-value times, you can start to make the most of them by adjusting your schedule and implementing a few techniques to ensure you’re focused on your most important work.
Q: What should teams do during or instead of meetings to maximize productivity and be mindful of employees’ time?
You and your team can do several things to conduct efficient meetings. Some of my go-to tactics include:
- Using an agenda: To keep meetings on track, create an agenda in advance, store it in the cloud, and share it with attendees. This ensures every topic gets the time it deserves. It also means people can add questions or discussion items in advance instead of sending a message to their coworkers and distracting them.
- Assigning prework: When you come to a meeting without preparing, it wastes everyone’s time. If you have work that needs to be done or materials that need to be reviewed before the meeting, assign it in advance, so everyone’s on the same page.
- Tracking decisions: Meeting decisions are only helpful if they’re properly tracked. Any decisions made during a meeting should be recorded in a work management tool like Asana or company wiki. This ensures everyone is on the same page and knows what needs to be done.
- Incorporating asynchronous communication: Sometimes, a meeting can be replaced with a few asynchronous video messages using a tool like Loom. Or in many cases, a Loom before the meeting can reduce the time. For example, if you report numbers in every meeting, you may be better off sending that as a recording that people can view on their own time.
Q: Can you share a real-life example of the 3 questions you recommend asking before adding more work to your plate?
I have to credit my friend Dr. Patty Ann Tublin for telling me this initially, albeit in a slightly different context.
Many people tend to add work to their plate without stopping to think about whether it makes sense to do so. So, before taking on any new tasks, ask yourself these three questions: Does this need to be done? Does this need to be done by me? And does this need to be done by me now?
For instance, you’re a marketing manager at a tech company, and the CEO asks you to create a new social media strategy. You’re already working on several projects, a rebranding initiative, and a product launch campaign.
You can use these questions to evaluate whether or not you’re able to take on this new project:
- Does this need to be done? You’ll need to evaluate the CEO’s request and assess whether or not a new social media strategy is essential for the company’s goals and objectives. You may also consider if the company’s current social media presence is lacking and if a new strategy will help to improve it.
- Does this need to be done by me? Are you the best person to lead the development of the new strategy, or is there someone else who is better suited for the task? You can delegate the entire project to a rising star on your team, which empowers them and frees up your schedule for higher-priority work.
- Does this need to be done by me now? Evaluate your (and your team’s) current workload and the urgency of the ask. Consider if the task can wait until you can take it on or if it needs to be done immediately. Also, consider if this task can be done simultaneously with other projects.
We only have 24 hours in our day, so we must prioritize the work that gives us pleasure and requires our unique strengths.
Q: You say the primary reason teams are overwhelmed is that people are drowning in unnecessary work and inefficiencies. What do you consider unnecessary work?
Over the many years I’ve worked in efficiency consulting, I’ve learned that unnecessary work or the minute inefficiencies that litter the workflows of so many companies come in various forms.
One big culprit is the scavenger hunt I mentioned earlier. One study found that 19.8 percent of business time is wasted by employees searching for information to do their job effectively. That’s one business day per week wasted.
There are other things, like coordinating tasks and projects or planning work from week to week. This can take a lot of time, but teams can set up systems to do these things efficiently.
In terms of “unnecessary work,” I’ve noticed many teams get in the habit of doing things the way they’ve always done them. As a result, they might be spending time on repetitive tasks that add little value. These tasks can often be removed, automated, or delegated. Tasks like scheduling meetings or generating monthly reports or data entry should be automated to save time and allow teams to focus on the work that matters.
Everyone has a unique ability or zone of genius. So anything that falls outside of that area should be automated, outsourced, or delegated whenever possible.
Q: Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say “work about work?”
“Work about work” is a term Asana uses in its annual Anatomy of Work Index. It refers to activities outside the employee’s primary job function, like communicating about work, searching for information, managing priorities, etc.
Unfortunately, it’s estimated that 58 percent of employee time is spent on these kinds of activities, a significant waste of talent and resources.
These activities can include:
- Meetings: Unorganized meetings or meetings without a clear agenda can be a source of “work about work.” They can consume time and resources without achieving a clear outcome or decision.
- Email: The inefficient use of email and the lack of a system (such as Inbox Zero) to keep your inbox clear can take time and energy.
- Status updates: Requesting and providing regular status updates is time-consuming and can create additional work for your team without necessarily providing any other value.
- Lack of standardization: When your team doesn’t have a specified process or tool to complete tasks, it can lead to inconsistencies and delays. Work management tools can help you avoid this.
- Pings and dings: All the time we lose due to unnecessary distractions and notifications.
Removing or reducing “work about work” can free up time and resources to focus on more critical tasks that drive value for your company. At Leverage, we help teams identify these types of unnecessary work and find ways to streamline, automate, or eliminate them.
Q: Can you share your experience using an LMS and how this can help teams improve efficiency and internal processes?
I have found that implementing a Learning Management System (LMS) can be incredibly beneficial for improving my team’s efficiency and internal processes. For starters, they’re great for onboarding new team members. which is often time-consuming. What I love about WorkRamp is that we can create and assign training modules to get new hires up to speed without wasting other team members’ valuable time.
We’re obsessed with ensuring that everyone uses our tools the same way and has the same baseline level of understanding. An LMS is one of the only ways to ensure that happens. So we have different courses for all of our tools, and every new employee goes through them to understand how to use the tool and how we use it as a team.
And then in our consulting work, we also put our clients through similar training modules to get their teams up to speed. So we have calls with the team, and we’re often working on solving high-level problems, but at the same time, we’re establishing that baseline level of knowledge throughout their entire team in a very scalable way. So there’s no better way to ensure a team is aligned on how to work together best. And I know because I’ve put a lot of time into solving this problem!
Q: What’s the best way to implement the processes and strategies you recommend? Does it start with leadership? Managers? How can individual contributors lean into these tactics?
The best way to implement the strategies in the book is through a top-down approach. It starts with leadership setting the tone and direction for the organization and then cascading down to managers and individual contributors.
As a leader, you play a crucial role in driving and communicating the importance of operational efficiency and creating a culture that supports and encourages the adoption of new processes and strategies. You must be willing to invest the time and resources necessary to make these changes and lead by example by modeling the behaviors and practices you want to see. No one wants to be told to change how they work, but when employees see the CEO getting on board with a new method, they’re much more likely to open their eyes and give it a chance.
Managers, of course, play a key role in implementing the processes and strategies at the team level. They’re responsible for working with teams to understand how new strategies will impact their work and how they can best be adopted. They should also provide regular feedback and coaching to ensure the processes and methods are adopted correctly and address any issues.
Individual contributors also have a critical role to play. They must embrace change and lean into new processes and strategies. Team members should be encouraged to provide feedback and suggestions for improvement and take ownership of the latest methods in their daily work. We have a sort of unofficial motto at Leverage of “there’s always a better way,” and what that means is we’re always open to finding new ways of working. We question everything and don’t settle for doing things the way they’ve always been done.
When it comes down to it, a combination of leadership, managers, and individual contributors working together will ensure the proper implementation of these strategies and cultivate a culture of continuous improvement. And, from a more tactical standpoint, an LMS is an invaluable tool.
By implementing these strategies, your teams can be more in sync and work together efficiently and effectively.
Learn about these tactics and more ways for your team to work better in Nick’s new book Come Up For Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work.
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Maile TimonContent Strategist, WorkRamp
Maile Timon is WorkRamp’s Content Strategist. She has over 10 years of experience in content marketing and SEO and has written for several publications and industries, including B2B, marketing, lifestyle, health, and more. When she’s not writing or developing content strategies, she enjoys hiking and spending time with her family.
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