28 percent of us can't answer the question, 'how do you spend your time at work?'

Are you struggling with feeling confident and accomplished at work? You’re not alone, and there’s plenty you can do about it.
Image: A woman uses her cell phone
63 percent of workers say goals are poorly communicated, and more than half go nearly the entire week without discussing what they’re working on with their supervisors. lechatnoir / Getty Images
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By Jean Chatzky

So, yeah, turns out a lot of us are pretty clueless when it comes to our jobs — 28 percent of workers don't know how they're spending their time at work, and 37 percent believe their managers don't even know what their employees are working on, according to a survey frommonday.com. It’s no wonder, then, that just 21 percent of us say we feel productive at work, but these are statistics that no one wants to be a part of. We all want to walk out of the office every evening feeling competent and accomplished … so what’s the issue?

If you had to boil it down to a single word, clarity might be the one. Employees aren’t clear on what’s expected of them. Managers aren’t clear on how to telegraph goals. “In some jobs, it’s hard for managers to set metrics, but when you don’t know exactly what someone should be doing to reach a target, that’s even more reason to try to communicate goals,” explains Jody Greenstone Miller, CEO of Business Talent Group, an online job platform for consultants and executives. “Every employee needs clarity from the get-go around what success looks like and what a person needs to do to achieve it. If managers don’t do that, then it’s just luck if someone does what you want them to do.” Of course the onus isn’t only on the manager — employees also have to step up, raise a hand, and say, “I’m not clear on what would be a productive, good result. Can you give me more information?” Miller says. “It should never be a one-way street, it should be both ways.”

There’s a “U” and “I” in Communicate

If you’re thinking all this sounds a lot like a breakdown in communication, you’d be right — 63 percent of workers say they deal with poor communication around needs and goals, and more than half go nearly the entire week without discussing what they’re working on with their supervisors. This has to change, says Matthew Burns, head of customer success atmonday.com.

“I believe in focusing on over-communicating and being as open and honest as possible,” Burns says. To foster good communication, look at doing daily check-ins with your manager, and weekly check-ins with your team. If you don’t already have time reserved on your calendar, put it there now. Otherwise it’s easy to get distracted and postpone meetings until another week — or month — goes by. No matter where you “rank” at a company, everyone from the CEO down to the intern needs to communicate early and often, Burns says. But what will vary depending on your standing in the corporate hierarchy is your approach.

If you’re a manager and need to have better communication with your employees…

First of all, keep in mind that you don’t need to know everything everyone is doing — you want to avoid wandering into micromanagement territory, which can be oppressive for all involved. Rather, your role is to make the people around you more successful by setting clear objectives and ensuring they know how to achieve success, Miller says. Thankfully, getting a handle on your employee’s tasks doesn’t have to be awkward or intimidating. You simply say, “I want you to be successful, so I want to understand how you’re spending your time, so we can make sure your tasks are lined up with the goals that you need to achieve,” Miller says. “This should never be a negative conversation — no one is going to be happy if they don’t know what they’re supposed to do.”

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During these conversations with your employees, listen out for indications of distress, or warning signs that a person has too much piled on them and that their job has become undoable, Miller warns. “An undoable job is when someone is trying to perform too many tasks, and isn’t able to perform any of them well. When employees feel that way, they’re going to be much more likely to burn out.”

After you have those initial conversations, make a plan to keep going with regular, frequent check-ins, even if they’re not necessarily a part of your company’s culture. When your team benefits from the increased communication you’ve fostered, your managers will definitely take note, Burns says. In fact, your way of of doing things could become the new normal.

If you’re an employee seeking to have better communication with your manager…

Managers want someone who is proactive, not reactive. So if you work for a company that doesn’t insist on regular manager check-ins, then you need to be the one to initiate that, Burns says. “You have to be willing to play ball and take ownership. Even if you’re an introvert, this is your success at stake, so you have to be willing to make this important in order to move forward.”

If you’re unsure how to broach those conversations with your manager, start by writing everything out, Miller says. “Prepare a piece of paper detailing how you’re spending your time, with hours and percentages, and include a list of your goals, as you see them,” she explains. “Go to your manager and say, ‘Here are the goals I think are the right ones for me. I’d love to make sure this is what you expect.”

If you’re worried about your boss getting mad at you for making the first move, don’t. Managers absolutely love it when they can see their employees taking initiative. If you go to them with a suggested plan for your success, they’ll actually be really grateful that you’ve done the research and work for them, Miller says. Even if you don’t totally hit the mark on everything they want you to accomplish, the exercise of getting everything down on paper will teach you a lot about what you’re doing and what success looks like in your role.

Lastly, one of the best ways to feel more productive overall — and more confident when heading into meetings with management — is to simply make an old-fashioned checklist of your daily tasks. Ideally you should have a keen awareness of what you’re doing at work that’s really going to move the needle, Miller says. There are a lot of things that people do everyday that are simply “nice” to do. We may enjoy them, and they may be quasi-important, but if we’re not honing in on our core responsibility every day, then we’re much more likely to feel unproductive or negative about our performance. “Once I get my list ready, I start making judgements about which tasks to prioritize based on what’s critical to reaching my goals. When you spend your entire day just responding to what comes into your inbox, you probably aren’t going to feel very productive. You have to be disciplined, and hyper-aware of how you’re spending time.”

With Kathryn Tuggle

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