Ever since scientific management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor started timing assembly-line workers with a stop-watch in the 1800s, there's been a push to work faster.
Today, many employees are slaves to the clock. For employers, meanwhile, it's tempting to push the envelope, especially when they can't raise prices. Why require employees to take 120 calls per day when they can handle 140? Why should they make 10 widgets per hour when they can make 16?
So far, the push for productivity has worked: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturers boosted productivity 9.4 percent during the first quarter of 2002, while retailers have increased productivity 18.2 percent annually since 1997. In October, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan says recent increases in productivity could be the largest in 30 years.
But as the Eagles' song goes, life in the fast lane will surely make you lose your mind. Job speed has been an employee and union complaint for decades, but it seems to be coming to the forefront lately. In one case last June, hotel housekeepers in Las Vegas put job speed ahead of wages in contract negotiations.
Life in the Fast Lane
For small companies, the pace of keeping up with the competition "is pushing very hard on everybody, from management all the way down," says Ken Sulzer, a labor and employment attorney with Seyfarth Shaw in Los Angeles.
He's seeing employee complaints over retention and job satisfaction as a result. "You never get a complaint of 'This job is too hard; you've sped it up too much.' But that's something in the background that eats away," Sulzer says.
You want employees to maximize their performance, and you should. But how fast is too fast? It's a question facing Ifulfill.com, a Maumee, Ohio, fulfillment company that ships nutritional supplements, books, videos and other products for more than 30 clients. The company ships about 300 orders a day and hopes to be shipping 2,000 orders a day by the end of this year.
Working faster is a constant topic of discussion for the company's seven employees, says founder and president Paul Purdue, 40. When the company had a 900-order day last summer, the deadline pressure was too much, he says. Employees got the job done, but felt it was ridiculous that they were in that position. "And I think, honestly, it was," Purdue says.
Purdue thinks focusing too much on pace increases error and turnover rates. Instead, he's improving the company's infrastructure to "help employees work faster without working faster." That means constantly updating technology and systems, planning ahead for peak times and hiring seasonal workers.
"One of the big reasons employees resent being told to work faster is they don't see anything being put in place to help them," he says. "You have to give people the tools to work faster." His efforts aren't hurting revenue: Ifulfill.com's sales were $700,000 last year, and Purdue is projecting sales of $1 million in 2003.
You can increase pace, but you'll need to simplify the process for employees, says Janelle Barlow, president of TMI, US in Las Vegas, a company that businesses consult with on employee productivity issues. In the age of technology, "it's a process of looking at every single thing [employees] do and asking 'Does this add value?'" she says. "There are so many things people are doing that are completely unnecessary."
Ask employees where they see a balance, too. Is the pace so fast it's hurting product quality, morale, even safety? You could be surprised by what you hear. "We don't ask employees what is the best way to do things, but they have the answers on how to get better productivity," says Karen Lund, founder of The Lund Group, a consulting firm in St. Paul, Minnesota. In return, you'll get employee buy-in instead of the "them vs. us" mentality and burnout that inevitably lead to high turnover.
Entrepreneurs who push employees to work fast are thinking like big companies when they should instead focus on helping their employees work smarter instead of faster, says Frank Shipper, a management professor at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Maryland. Pushing quantity over quality in a small company "just doesn't work," Shipper says. "When you're starting out and trying to build clientele, service is a huge thing."
Give employees incentive to focus on quality service, and use surveys and comment cards to measure customer satisfaction. Your customers will tell you if the pace is pushing them away. Otherwise, your bottom line may speak volumes. "If you raise your pace and your sales are dropping per employee, then you're in trouble," Shipper says.
There's no easy solution to the quickening pace of business today, and it's likely only to get faster as technology gets better. Keep putting pace in perspective so it never outpaces your people, or your customers. "There are going to be ever-increasing demands, at increasing rates, for higher productivity," Sulzer says. "It's going to be up to employers to keep morale high."
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.