How Workplace Surveys Make Knowledge Workers More Productive

In knowledge work and in most service work, productivity improvement requires the elimination of whatever activities do not contribute to performance. Non-productive activities sidetrack and divert from performance.

Eliminating such work may be the single biggest step towards greater productivity in both knowledge and service work. Generally speaking, most problems can be converted into opportunities. That's the guiding principle underlying the proper use of employee surveys.

Examples abound. Peter Drucker tells how one survey achieved jaw-dropping gains in knowledge worker productivity in an article in the California Management Review.

He provided an excellent example of how nurses in a major hospital were asked these questions in an employee survey: What is your task? What should it be? What should you be expected to contribute? What hampers you in doing your task, and should these obstacles be eliminated?

According to Drucker:

"The nurses were sharply divided as to what their task was, with one group saying ‘patient care’ and another saying ‘satisfying physicians.’ However, they were in complete agreement on the things that made them unproductive.

They called them ‘chores,’ paperwork, arranging flowers, answering the phone calls of patients' relatives, answering the patient bells and so on. All—nearly all—of these could be turned over to a non-nurse floor clerk, paid a fraction of a nurse’s pay.

When the nurses were freed of chores, their productivity nearly doubled, as measured by the time at the patients’ bedsides. Further, patient satisfaction more than doubled and turnover of nurses (which had been catastrophically high) almost disappeared, all within four months."

Another Example and Its Lessons

In today's modern department store a great many controls are required. Each sale has to be recorded. There is need for information for inventory control, billing, credit, delivery and so on.

But Drucker reminded us:

"In far too many department stores the salesperson is supposed to provide all the control information. As a result, he/she has less and less time to do what he is paid for, that is, selling. Indeed, in some large American retail stores, over 50 percent of the salesperson's time is devoted to paperwork...with only one third left for selling.

The remedy is a simple one and works whenever tried. Once the salesperson has done his or her job, which is to serve the customer, the entire paperwork is turned over to a separate clerk who services a number of sales people and does the paperwork for them. The impact both on the ability of salespeople to have more time to sell and on their morale is astonishing."

Knowledge workers—engineers, project managers, sales representatives, call center managers, quality specialists and the like—must be continually surveyed if obstacles to their performance are to be identified and eliminated.

The result? The quality of service increases, individual and organizational productivity soars and employee retention increases.

The Power of Asking the Right Questions

Knowledge workers and service workers should always be asked: Is this work necessary to your main task? Does it contribute to your performance? Does it help you do your job?

If the answer is "no," according to Drucker, the procedure or operation must be a "chore" rather than "work." It should either be dropped altogether or engineered into a job of its own.

Improving the productivity of knowledge workers and service workers demands well-constructed, first-rate surveys and focus groups. It demands an understanding of the right questions to ask, a methodology for obtaining truthful (i.e., unbiased) answers and a command of simple statistical tools that enables collected data to be correctly analyzed and interpreted.

Learn how to get the truth out of employee surveys. Equally important, redesign the work process to maximize productivity. Once the "information" is obtained it must be acted upon, that is, converted into action. Otherwise it remains an exercise in expensive data collection.