How to help your young team manage grunt work
Here are a few techniques help shrink the amount of time to spend on grunt work, while still getting it done
In So I Married an Axe Murderer, a whacky 1990’s parody, a police officer named Tony confides to his captain, “I’m having doubts about being a cop. You know, it’s not like how it is on TV. All I do all day is fill out forms and paperwork.” Tony thought his job would be more thrilling than it has turned out to be. Tony is not alone. Every job contains some unglamorous grunt work.
This can be especially tough for early-career professionals to accept, especially those in entry-level positions. College life is often flexible, challenging, and engaging, and after four years of that it can be hard to sit still in an office for hours at time, doing administrative tasks, without thinking, I earned a college degree for this? But it’s not just recent graduates who struggle with grunt work. Anyone of any age can think their role should only entail tasks that are exciting or fulfilling and that the drudge work is beneath them and should be someone else’s problem.
Whatever its source, entitlement is a career killer, a noose with which employees of any generation can—and do—hang themselves. If someone you manage is complaining to you about the amount of grunt work they have, you need to figure out a way to help them get over their frustration and see that everyone on the team has grunt work they have to do, and also learn to manage their time so that they don’t short-change higher-value activities.
Here are a few techniques I suggest to help them shrink the amount of time they spend on grunt work, while still getting it done:
Impose constraints: If an employee is filling her days with low-level tasks that could be completed in much less time, impose a time constraint. Morning email needs to be answered by 10am. Calls need to be returned within one hour. The previous week’s data needs to be compiled and reported by Monday at 4pm.
Time management is a skill that many need help to learn, and as a manager, you may need to be the teacher. Expect some pushback—an employee is likely to say that they can’t complete X task in half the time. But push them to at least try. And an often overlooked upside is that a ho-hum task can become a more engaging challenge when a time constraint is imposed.
Dangle the carrot: What is the more interesting work that the employee would like to be doing? What is your vision of what the employee could be doing for the firm? Have the conversation. Help the employee visualize the new opportunities that could complement their ordinary tasks. Perhaps pair the employee with a more mature worker who can mentor them in time management and also inspire with a glimpse of the different types of work the firm engages in. Adding more-appealing work to their portfolio will compel them to shrink the amount of time they spend on lower-value work.
Shake the stick: A dangled carrot is positive motivation, but consequences can be effective as well. Employees who spend hours on tasks that really are not that important are not spending their time on the right things. Establish goals for an employee’s most value-added work, and consequences if they don’t meet those goals.
Shrinking the amount of time your employee is spending on the dull tasks should help mitigate their frustration at having to do them at all. If it doesn’t, you may need to have a larger conversation about their career goals and whether they can meet them in their current role, or even at your firm.
I love the story told about Sam Pitroda, then the head of C-DOT, India’s telecommunications enterprise. C-DOT had two floors of a five-star hotel as their workspace. A repairman had been called to fix a broken doorknob on the boardroom. Repair completed, he packed up his tools and prepared to leave—both the boardroom and the mess he’d made while making the repair. Pitroda asked for a broom, invited the man to sit and proceeded to clean up the mess while he watched. A great lesson which should be taught in more workplaces—the task is not beneath the CEO; it isn’t beneath anyone else either.
Perhaps you recognize that you’re not the manager of an employee in this scenario; you are the employee. These techniques will work for you as well. Outline your own objectives and practice the discipline to achieve them. Establish time limits for accomplishing unpleasant tasks, a schedule for completing less-than-thrilling projects and reward yourself for achieving these goals.
This article (https://hbrascend.org/topics/how-to-help-your-team-manage-grunt-work/) was first published on hbrascend.org. HBR Ascend is a digital learning platform for graduating students and millennials.
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