Three years ago, the pandemic lockdown triggered a wave of relentless workplace change. Over time, we’ve all had to revamp our attitudes, expectations and behaviors when it comes to productivity and how we get work done. Yet, some people treat nearly every action item as an urgent priority. And this mindset isn’t serving anyone well.
Why is workplace urgency still so widespread? And how can we let go of this counterproductive behavior? Experts say progress is possible, if we wake up and deal with the problem when it arises. But that’s not always easy, especially in our new work environment.
What’s Changed? Where We Work
- Globally, 16% of companies now rely on a fully remote workforce, with 62% of employees saying they work remotely at least part of the time.
- Employees see multiple benefits from this increased flexibility. Although remote work no longer looks the same as it did in the early days of Covid, surveys say that up to 90% of employees feel they’re at least as productive when working from home.
What exactly is behind this enthusiasm for remote work? It’s not just about less commute time and improved quality of life. It’s also about efficiency and effectiveness. For example, many remote workers experience fewer interruptions and enjoy more freedom to engage in “deep work.” But that’s not all.
Does Distance Diffuse Urgency?
I suspect many people prefer working at a distance because it also helps them feel less susceptible to what #WorkTrends podcast guest Brandon Smith calls “the urgency epidemic.” In other words, too many managers say a task is “urgent” when a rush really isn’t required. This is an especially irritating aspect of office life. And it’s all too common.
Think about it: When was the last time you faced an unnecessarily urgent work demand based on a leader’s unrealistic expectations? Yesterday? Last week? How did you respond?
Brandon sees this pervasive sense of urgency as a sign of managerial dysfunction. He should know. He’s an expert on leadership communication. So that’s why he wrote the book, The Hot Sauce Principle. He’s on a mission to help managers recognize this problem and help their teams heal from its toxic impact.
An organization’s most precious resource isn’t money. It’s time. So, as Brandon says, when everything at work is always urgent, it creates “a Petri dish for anxiety.” And over time, if employees and managers aren’t careful, it leads to a decline in efficiency and quality of work.
Unfortunately, this is rampant in today’s work settings. But it clashes with remote and hybrid work cultures in multiple ways. Here are Brandon’s tips to help us all understand and resolve the “urgency epidemic.”
How to be Productive Without Making Everything Urgent
1) Realize that time pressure creates stress
Time management has always been a challenge. It turns the clock into an ever-present source of stress. Yet too often, managers use urgency as a tool to get things done. The result: People become so overwhelmed with stress that their efficiency slips and their quality of work declines.
2) Think of urgency as hot sauce
I love a strong visual metaphor. Brandon’s hot sauce concept is perfect. While conducting research for his book, employees told him it felt like “hot sauce was being poured on everything.” What a powerful way to describe the effect of unnecessary pressure!
3) Honor the line between motivation and migraines
Most managers use urgency as a motivator. That’s not always a bad thing. In the right circumstances, it can inspire teams to come together and align around a common goal. It can shape a sense of mission and purpose when working on a short timeline. But it can’t be the norm.
When everything is treated as urgent, it can trigger needless headaches, missteps and disengagement. It’s just not reasonable to work full-tilt in crisis mode all the time.
4) Understand urgency’s diminishing influence
If you’re a leader, think back to your early training. You were likely taught that a sense of urgency is a powerful way to drive an immediate response. Urgency can convince people to jump into action or to change their behavior.
However, modern employees aren’t as readily motivated by urgency. These days, change is a constant — in teams, in technology and in culture. Introducing urgency to the mix doesn’t add value. In fact, it just creates more chaos.
5) Don’t let yourself become numb
We’ve all heard of the boy who cried wolf. If a manager says everything is urgent, eventually nothing seems urgent. Determining which projects are actually urgent becomes impossible, so people simply give up.
Clearly this creates problems for work productivity. But it also undermines a manager’s authority and credibility. Again, the key is for leaders to carefully choose which tasks deserve immediate attention.
6) Pick only five targets
This is my favorite recommendation. Brandon says managers and business leaders should limit how many projects they categorize as “urgent” at any given time. He suggests no more than five to-do items.
As he says, “The best teams, the best departments, the best organizations are executing off of three to five priorities … let everything else just be relief from the heat.”
The Bottom Line
To be sure, continually labeling projects or tasks “urgent” is not a best practice. It may be effective in the short-term. However, it’s also a highly effective way to erode your work culture. That’s because urgency pushes boundaries, and boundaries are critical for a healthy work culture. That’s especially true in today’s new remote/hybrid world of work.
So if you’re a leader, don’t be the kind of person who wants your team to drop whatever they’re already doing to rush in and put out the latest fire on your to-do list. Acknowledge the lines between life and work (unclear as they may be), and home and workplace (virtual or not).
Resist the urge to constantly reorder your team’s priorities. Don’t blindly insist that your priorities are more important than theirs. Regularly take a moment to read the room — even if the room may be distributed across multiple locations. I bet you’ll find that your team starts achieving more and you’ll all be happier for it.