Managing productivity in a team that’s completely remote is a whole other challenge, and we’ve invited Michael Alexis, the CEO of Team Building to tell us more about it. Find out what’s their secret to maximizing productivity levels and staying on track with all current projects.
Workpuls: Hello everyone, welcome to another episode of Workpuls Productivity Talks! Today with me I have Michael Alexis, the CEO of Team Building. We’re going to be talking, as always, about productivity, some great productivity tips. His company actually does a pretty cool management technique for their projects that ensures productivity So, let's start off with some of the basics. Like what it is that you guys do? How does your company exactly work?
Michael Alexis: So we are a team building company, which means we serve clients like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, many others small, medium-sized as well. But those are some of the best known. Team building is when you get your employees together, to have fun together and relax and build relationships. So this is what we do via teambuilding.com, specific examples, we have unconventional museum tours in cities like New York City and San Francisco. We run guacamole making competitions. Those live experiences are actually on pause right now we're doing a lot more virtual. So one of the fun virtual events is called Online Office Games. It's kind of like “online Olympics”, except the Olympics is very, very trademarked, so you can't say that. It’s the spirit though. It's a series of fun games and challenges that teams can do together to compete, build relationships, team building etcetera. Another one is Tiny Campfire, where we send s’more kits to all of the participants and then they cook little marshmallows, sort of a tiny fire, we tell those stories. It's a lot of fun. So all geared towards company culture, employee engagement, satisfaction, etcetera.
Workpuls: I had the opportunity to browse a little bit on your website, to see what types of events you guys do. I was especially interested in the virtual ones, given what's happening right now, and there are really many, many companies who, even before all this, were working remotely and are remote. So I was really interested in seeing what are you guys doing in those environments and I really liked some of the ideas. It's really interesting to see all of that come out. I guess it will be interesting doing anything. I think those are, maybe even more important now than in the regular times because people's spirits right now tend to go more low than they usually do, so I guess that's good. So yeah, as we're talking about productivity. What I wanted to know first from you is how would you define productivity either for yourself or for your team? What is productivity for you?
Michael Alexis: So, as a general concept, I see productivity as working efficiently towards a specific goal. So for us as, still relatively small, bootstrapped business, that goal is profit and we need to gear our productivity, our time efficiently towards that. That means looking at the number of hours of work, the amount of payroll that goes into producing any given outcome. That outcome could be marketing, it could be in sales, it could be inn operations, etcetera, across the span. I think it's kind of important with productivity to recognize that it might be very different for other organizations. The way that a very large company like, I don't know, IBM or GE handles productivity would be different than we do with managing a small team in a small company. And then individuals separate too, right? The way that you and I do productivity is different than my grandma's going to think about it.
Workpuls: Okay. Well, if you're measuring it towards the profits and everything I guess there is for you, in your case, there is a way to measure productivity, right?
Michael Alexis: Yeah. So we do it in a very numbers based way, I happen to really like numbers, I like to track them. I like having data to make decisions off of, not everybody does and that's okay. You can make really good decisions off of kind of the gut feeling and what you see as well, or some kind of combination of the two. For us, the numbers would look a little bit something like this. So if we have a content marketing plan, if we want to create a certain amount of blog content, maybe it's case studies for our blog or maybe it's just informational articles. We might know that an average case study takes four hours of work, that includes reaching out to a client that's had a great experience with us, it means recording a quick call with them, making notes on it, writing the case study, publishing it, etcetera. Maybe it's four hours, maybe it's four and a half, whatever it is, the average even can change a little bit over time as we start to build in efficiencies or change the process around them. But at least having that benchmark there, lets us know if we're on track in the future. So if we write 10, 20, 30 of these, and most of them take four hours, that's good. If they start to take 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, well, then we start to ask questions about why. Sometimes it might be very innocent, it could be as simple as it was difficult to get a hold of a client or we had to re-record with them, or we sent them the case study and they said, “Oh, wow, I didn't even say that. You need to rewrite it.” These are possibilities and are totally okay of course. If it was something with our team, it could be a sign of disengagement. Sometimes people, especially working from home, like we do, you could turn a four-hour project into a 10-hour project pretty easily because you get distracted with other things, you're looking around the internet, etcetera. None of that assuming kind of bad intentions on the part of the people. It's just a reality of work and being people and what we do. So having some kind of standardization of metrics across the board, lets us look at it objectively and make decisions to support our people and processes.
Workpuls: Sounds like you have a good system in place. You mentioned something in the initial email about a four week cycles that you guys are doing that has really helped you maintain the level of productivity that you have and even increase it. So tell me a little bit more about that, how does the process look like?
Michael Alexis: I love four week cycles and it's something that I wish I could take credit for. I actually got it from Noah Kagan of okdork.com and appsumo.com. Noah and I were chatting and he made the suggestion to get us aligned around company goals and priorities. So here's how it works. At the beginning of the four week cycle, I sit down with our managers, and we come up with a list of projects for that month, and they're very specific. If it was marketing related, it would be not just we want to produce some case studies. It would be, we want to write and publish five case studies by the end of the month with these parameters around them. Maybe it would be something related to encouraging reviews, more reviews on Yelp or TripAdvisor or other platforms we have. Maybe if it was an interview project like this, you have mentioned to me that you're recording about 20 of them. So it would be 20 by the end of the month, whatever it is, putting numbers, putting guidelines for what the expectation is. And then over that month, those projects are considered the highest priority by far. They’re not should do’s or could do’s, or we should probably do’s, they’re: we absolutely must do these things, because they're critical to our success. Being able to rely on us making plans and doing the work to see it through very, very critical continuing to move forward kind of onward and upward. So anything else that comes up is considered lower priority than those by default. At the end of the month, I meet with the managers again and the expectation is that they come to it with a report where everything has been checked off, and there's a clear explanation of each one. So if it was writing long form content, three pieces, it would be here are the three pieces that were written. If it was something related to a social media goal, if we wanted to get another, I don't know 5000 followers here is where we are towards that goal, etcetera, etcetera. So it's all very, very clear.
The interesting thing about four week cycles, I think the reason it works so well for us is that, as a small team and a small bootstrapped company, we are fortunate to be very nimble. We can change our direction every day, every hour if we want to, which is okay, if you're operating from a position of management and thinking about the general direction of the company. It's very, very difficult for employees to keep up with because they might start on a project and then you shift to something else and then, “Oh, we're focusing on this today. This is where the time is going or the money's going,” or whatever it happens to be. So four week cycles give everybody stability, it gives clear expectations. And I've been wildly impressed that our team is able to consistently keep up and manage and deliver on the expectations we set each month. And I credit that towards their excellent work ethic, but also just the simplicity of “these are the must do’s”.
Workpuls: And when you decided to implement this system, was there any pushback on the employee side? How did that process look? I guess it's not just this idea. “Oh, look, guys, we're doing this,” and then all of a sudden, it all works perfectly.
Michael Alexis: There was no pushback, actually, I think everybody was very into it. It is, again, a system that benefits not just the company but the people. It's stressful to work in an environment where everything's changing all the time. So having this regularity of at least everything's going to stay the same for four weeks is very, very good for them to be able to plan their work, them to be able to see the input and the contribution they make. At the end of the month, they can say like, “Look, here's the 30 things that I did,” which is very good, I think, for a personal sense of accomplishment. And also very, very clear the contribution they make to the organization, and the effort they put in and something that we can then make decisions around, promotions, and pay increases, and bonuses and everything else.
Workpuls: Yeah, it's good. It reflects good on the employee engagement, I believe as well. And it makes… I mean engaged employees are, of course, more productive employees in return. So it's a win-win situation, obviously. But have you, before this, have you tested some other time management or productivity methods and tools? And what were the methods that you've tested before this one that have proven to also be good, but this one just seemed a bit better?
Michael Alexis: Yeah, we've done a lot. So I'm personally a little obsessed with personal productivity. I’m always trying to figure out how to leverage my time better. And figuring that out with a team was different because you can't just say like, “Oh, this works for me. It'll work, like all of you do it too. It'll work well,” it doesn't work that way. So finding kind of systems and processes that support a diverse range of people and work styles, etcetera, is important. We tried Trello early on, we still use Trello to track some projects, but we had like a master Trello board for project management, and it's very pretty, it had dates and times and automations and things on it. It worked for a short time but for us, that wasn't a long term solution for our team. It was just... people didn't want to log on. They didn't want to update stuff. They didn't want to do this. So we put that aside. Zapier has been excellent for productivity and performance, a little bit different in that it's more about creating higher leverage in any given role than personal productivity. So Zapier is a system where you can set up robots to do the work for you. It can connect your email platform to Slack, to your HR systems, to whatever it happens to be. We use it a lot, I think 50,000, 100,000 little robot tasks every single month at least. And that has been implemented into our productivity through our people, through professional development and training. So for example, we did a video call just like this, where I walked them through the platform I showed them, this is how you build a simple Zap. Here's examples of Zaps we use in other departments and then I had a challenge for everybody to build their own. If somebody was on social media - build any social media Zap, if somebody was on HR - one for that, if somebody was on accounting or bookkeeping - one for that. And the idea was just get people a little bit more comfortable, a little bit more familiar using the platform and very difficult to measure the productivity increase that comes from it other than what I mentioned in the number of Zaps around tens of thousands of tasks every month that we weren't doing before so the productivity per person is much, much higher there. We use other stuff that I think is helpful. We use text expander apps to keep templates and to be able to display our stuff out. We do time tracking with some employees, depending on the role, and certainly is a great balance of just productivity but also consistency and reliability and just clear information. I think that it's difficult to track time on our own. I sort of know what today is, it's Wednesday, the clock tells me but hard to know when you're in focus and you're on something. Well, was that 30 minutes or was it three hours, the time just kind of disappears. So being able to track time for some folks makes it a lot simpler, a lot easier to know exactly what they're doing, what they're contributing, managing business finances, etcetera as well.
Workpuls: Yeah, it makes sense, especially connected the time tracking parts, of course, because of our own industry. But yeah, we are using it. We are using it internally, of course and I've seen that it's been helping me. On the days when I remember to use it though. But when I am using it, when I'm really using what I want to work on something or I created a project, then I create a task within that project so I can track time, I can see exactly how much time on average it takes me to write a blog exactly. Not just on the top of my head. I think it takes me, no, it takes me this amount of time and it makes it easier for me to calculate in the future how much time I need to allocate to something else. So I believe that's really… It's also helping people on an individual level to organize their productivity and their time, I guess.
Michael Alexis: Yeah, absolutely powerful, powerful tools.
Workpuls: Okay. Do you have a tip for managers who are trying to increase productivity in the workplace? What's the first thing they should do?
Michael Alexis: Do four week cycles. Experiment with it. Even like one manager, one person on your team just say, “Hey, here's the list of deliverables going through until the end of the month. At the end of the month, expectation is that everything's done 100%.” And I think you will be wildly impressed, just like I was, with how much everybody can get done when they have that clarity from your direction and your collaboration with them.
Workpuls: Okay, that's it, like four week cycles is now something that you are a strong believer of and you're not switching to anything else anytime soon, I guess.
Michael Alexis: Yes, strong advocate, it's funny though. So we do four week cycles, you could potentially do two week cycles, or three week cycles, or five weeks cycles; it's more about the consistency and regularity. Four weeks works for us because it's about a month.
Workpuls: Yeah, it makes sense. Okay, well, that would be all if you don't have any other tips the four week cycle is what we're sharing with everybody. And I really like the system, I like the clarity on the employee side. I like the clarity. I like to have that. People tell me “Okay, this is what needs to be done. These are our goals for this month. Let's reach them.” But I know how I'm going to do it, and what I have to do and definitely makes work a lot easier and much more manageable, the projects and tasks that you have throughout the weeks. So yeah, it's definitely something that should be tried. It seems like something you should be tried for sure. I would like to thank you again for taking the time to talk to me. It was very, very nice. It was good to hear about the four week cycle. I haven't heard about it before. Thank you everybody also for listening into Workpuls Productivity Talks.
Michael Alexis: Yeah, it's my pleasure. Thank you so much.