There are many ways to improve workplace productivity. The author sets out seven tips for succeeding in an increasingly competitive economy.

History tells us that King Leonidas and his 300 brave Spartans fought a last stand against the colossal onslaught of Persian King Xerxes I at the Battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas and the Spartans fought to their deaths, although a year later the Greeks decisively defeated the Persians at the Battle of Plataea and ended the Persian invasion.

Like the small Spartan army that fought its last stand, we too fight to succeed in a tough economy and face escalating competition. What is extremely important in such business battles is no different from ancient historical battles — order and productivity. The most useful paradigm we adhere to is to go Agile.

Having worked in business environments large and small, I finally settled down running a tiny knowledge-based business since the 1990s, and never looked back. There were moments when I harbored thoughts of returning to corporate jobs, but the freedom to create, to innovate, to invent, and to execute, in a small, nimble and lean business, working with diverse and wonderful clients proved far too engaging for me to give up easily.

When I was working for large businesses, productivity was already something we employees were measured by. And decades on, productivity still plays a pivotal role in measuring the performance of employees. Credentials may be important to some organizations, but a diligent, productive and positive employee will always be treasured by bosses more than one who merely has a string of credentials framed on the wall.

Let’s examine some ideas for a more productive team to fend off competition and win, gleaned from three decades on both sides of the corporate fence.

1. Structured meetings.

Meetings can be a waste of time if mismanaged. From the many I have attended, the worst meetings are those without a well-defined agenda and a time limit. A good meeting is where every stakeholder is present on time, with a pre-defined agenda to follow, and a time limit dutifully adhered to. There should be a good meeting facilitator to ensure every item on the agenda is discussed promptly, efficiently, and closed properly. It would be ideal if all stakeholders turn up on time and attend till the end of their involvement with the meeting without leaving early. My typical question to those who would turn up late is, “Would you be late at the airport if you are catching a flight for a holiday?” A good model to follow is Scrum from the Agile paradigm, known as the “stand-up“, where there is a constrained agenda, a fixed frequency (daily or otherwise in the morning), a finite time limit (such as 15 minutes), and restricted number of people.

2. Laser focus on tasks.

We never run out of tasks which form part of our jobs. The day we run out of tasks, we are out of a job. Therefore, we are always having more tasks than we can handle. This is expected. The trouble surfaces when we attempt to juggle our plate of tasks and lose sight of the tasks or drop everything on the floor in shambles. We need to maintain a laser focus on the task at hand and set a time limit to completion. Remember, no human can truly multitask; we merely do slices of singular tasks in sequence. Leaders have to define ultimate deadlines to tasks. For more driven employees, leaders can push the boundaries and such employees rise to the challenge and even surpass the expectations of their bosses. For others, a reasonable time limit should be established, and leaders track their progress and completion of tasks. A scheduling and project-management system should be in place for complex tasks and projects, such as Slack, RedBooth or Basecamp.

3. Smart use of email.

Email is an important business tool, but let us remind employees that email is not a file uploader or a chat tool. Email should be used intelligently, with proper subject headers, succinctly written excerpts, and properly thought-through replies and content, so that the recipients are not left bewildered at emails with no intelligent subject headers, messy email contents, or huge attachments. Large attachments beyond a megabyte or two should be presented as links within the email via external services, so that the recipient, especially those on IMAP systems, won’t get frustrated trying to download huge email attachments. Educate employees never to send mails with large attachments. Email should not be a chat tool, where iterative question-and-answer or interactive discussions should be delegated to specified messaging tools.

4. Judicious use of social media.

Some companies, frustrated by the burgeoning use of social media at the workplace, have restricted their use. Social media such as Facebook have built-in chat functions, while dedicated video-messaging apps such as Skype may also be potential workplace time-wasters. Although social media or dedicated chat clients can be useful in some instances, the temptation to overstep the boundaries and spend too much time chatting is very real. Plus, many companies are also wary of new media applications due to security threats, and the possibility of information or resource leakage without accountability. So, unless employees are dedicated social media community managers, bosses have good reason to limit the use of social media. The threats of security lapses are so potent and real that organizations have gone on to “air-gap” their devices from the public Internet.

5. Engage stakeholders by phone.

The office phone is not dead, despite the emergence of social media. Face-to-face meetings are great, but not always possible or productive, especially if a few people are involved. The phone can present a quick and productive means for two or more people to communicate. Using the office phone can help engage stakeholders together, and get to resolve challenges or queries quickly in a succinct call. A follow-through email or updates on a project management or collaboration platform or system would be important so that the contents of the phone call are not forgotten, remedial and follow-through actions can be tracked, and individual accountability taken care of.

6. Adequate rest.

The science of human factors talks about the limits of the human body and performance, and sleep is a critical component of the human factors equation. No human being can go without rest or sleep. There are some who claim that they need little sleep, spending way too much time online or playing games. The reality is that our bodies require sleep to repair itself, after the daily wear-and-tear and the rigors of a good and hard day’s worth of work. Sleep deficit can cause a drop in productivity, as well as making a person more error-prone. As an example of performance and safety, pilots have to have adequate sleep before flights, according to human factors. You can’t force someone to get sufficient rest at home — it is really personal discipline. This is why we have a 10 a.m-to-6 p.m., five-day work week, and we try our best not to encroach on our peers’ time away from work. It is all for productivity.

7. Health and nutrition.

Besides rest, employees stay productive when they are healthy. Many of us work long hours and can’t find sufficient opportunities to cook at home or exercise regularly. Inspire employees to be vigilant about nutrition, vitamins, and fitness, and perhaps motivate them to keep up a healthy lifestyle. I work out at the gym with resistance training twice a week and train in karate now and then. My colleagues work out and train in Muay Thai martial arts and dance, whatever suits their personal fitness and health goals. All these disciplines and activities keep us sharp.

Just as we are inspired by the story of King Leonidas with his dedicated 300 Spartans fighting the Persians at Thermopylae, we too, as business executives, would like to keep our team of “Spartans” at the pinnacle of productivity, fighting fit, against the onslaught of the marketplace. Productive employees make profitable businesses.

Seamus Phan

Seamus Phan is a professional speaker, published author, and artist. He straddles between the creative and technology spheres, and has great interest in studying Asian cultures, philosophies, leadership, and branding. On the side, he is an artist specializing in Chinese brush painting.