This post is written for HR professionals, specifically HR Business Partners, but I think anyone in a client-facing role can use the advice to streamline your work.
You wake up right before your alarm goes off in the morning. You’re well-rested and peaceful. You stretch and make a mental list of all that you’re going to get done today at work. You list the 3-4 big things you need to take care of today and smile. It should be easy enough. You stretch one more time and your hand brushes against your phone on the nightstand. Instinctively, you reach for it and check your email.
You realize too late that you probably shouldn’t have done that!
There’s an onslaught of emails from between 10 pm when you hit the bed and well past midnight. Your boss needs an executive offer letter done up before 10 am, there’s an employee issue you have to deal with one of your clients on the west coast, and the new SVP wants her team’s compensation, along with all sorts of other employee data.
You scroll through the emails, spend too long reading through them, which sets you behind schedule by too long and by the time you get to work, you’re in a mad panic. You’ve completely lost track of the 3 big things you wanted to get done today. The next day, you have few more “catch up” emails to get through, and before you know it, you’re completely overwhelmed and drowning, rushing to get things done and compromising on quality.
Now imagine another day where you would never freak out about the same email from your boss because you’ve already done up a draft for this new executive with only a few things that need to be plugged in. And that behavior issue would never arise because the manager would already know how to deal with it. You’ve coached him so well after all. And the new SVP won’t ask for compensation information on her team, because you already gave that info to her when you helped with her onboarding.
I’ll bet you’re thinking that scenario 2 sounds lovely, but in the real world, that’s not how things go down. Or perhaps you thrive in Scenario 1 because you love the feeling of the unknown, and who likes planning their day anyway? It can get so boring.
Let me tell you that I was the HRBP in Scenario 1 for years. And for years I convinced myself that the chaos and unpredictability were what I craved. Besides, I told myself, it was part of the job. HRBPs could never have a predictable day. And if they did, I sure as hell didn’t want a piece of that. I thrived in busy environments. And I produced better work when I was swamped and going out of my mind.
The truth is that while I like being busy and I perhaps do indeed complete more work under pressure (note I didn’t say better work), I don’t like feeling stressed. I genuinely feel like I lose months off my life when things get that crazy. And I realized that when I’m busy it’s an ego boost, a feeling that I’m important, that I’m doing something worthy. When in reality it makes me look disorganized, harried, and like I don’t have my shit together. NOT a great impression!
So, I devised a way to ensure I was as organized as possible. So that emails like the ones above didn’t completely derail my day, and that I didn’t fall behind by the daily fires that are almost inevitable in the world of human resources. Here are three things that I did that completely took my career to the next level.
Set up processes
This was a game changer for me. It takes a little time to get organized at first, but the pay off never ends. A process is a systematic series of actions you take in a given situation. I created checklists for pretty much everything: recruitment, onboarding, terminations, performance improvement, board reports, metrics, and any other ongoing tasks I had to manage. I created templates for as many things as I could: employee letters (along with notes in the margins for things I needed to change around), questions to ask new clients, questions for managers when they had an employee issue, commonly asked employee and manager questions, lists of who to call for questions with internal HR issues (payroll, benefits, etc). I had agenda templates for my meetings with clients, with my manager and my team. I created a system to quickly denote tasks for myself in a page full of notes from a meeting. Mine is an asterix with a circle around it. Even now, when I come out of a meeting, I quickly scan my notes for an Asterix with a circle around it and put those tasks into my task manager (more on that in a moment).
The more you can systematize your work, the easier it will be to get things done faster, consistently, and with fewer errors. It also makes training new employees a cinch. The better your processes, the less time and energy you spend on routine work, and the more time you have to spend on partnering with your clients and doing value-add work.
I found a way to organize my email that works like a charm no matter which company I’m working for, and no matter which job. I use the same system in my business too. The system is simple and as long as I follow it, nothing ever slips through the cracks.
I create folders in my email for everything. I typically organize it by client group with subfolders for people or departments within that client group. For example, when I worked for a large pension fund, I supported the offices of the CFO, the CRO and the COO. Those were my top folders. Under each top folder, I had a list of departments that reported into it. For example, under CFO, I had subfolders for Finance, Actuarial, and Investment Operations. And within Finance, I had subfolders for the SVP, FP&A, and Reporting. I also had folders for my direct reports, my boss, and a folder called Projects, with subfolders of each project I was working on. Once the system is in place, processing emails become a lot easier.
When an email enters my inbox, I immediately read it and decide what to do with it. If it’s an action email, I enter the task into my task manager, then file the email immediately into the folder that makes the most sense. If I need to reference the email when I respond, I leave it in my inbox. If I have to forward the email to someone else to get an answer, I leave it in my inbox until I get the answer. This also serves as a follow-up because if I haven’t received an answer in a reasonable time, I can follow-up with the person. As soon as the email is actioned, and I’ve responded to it, I file it away. This keeps my inbox clean, and I know the only emails I have in there are ones that need work. Also, it makes finding old emails so easy as they’re all neat and organized in folders.
Track Tasks and Projects
Last but certainly not least, I have a method to track my tasks and projects that ensures I never forget I have to do something. You can use whatever tool makes sense to you. Over the years, I’ve experimented with many tools; Outlook tasks, Outlook calendar, Google tasks, Todoist, OneNote, Evernote.
The one I’ve landed on, that has made my life immeasurably simple is Asana. Asana is a free online project management tool, with a handy phone app that ensures you have access to your tasks and projects wherever you are. There are tons of learning resources on Asana online, so I won’t get into the technical details now, but it has completely changed my life. Not only do I track my projects, tasks, due dates in Asana, I also track my client conversations on it. I set up a separate project for each major client group (similar to my email folders). I can scan and attach my handwritten notes into the project. And when I have a task from a meeting with that client, I can enter it with a due date. All incomplete tasks show up in my Asana inbox. An added bonus: it makes year-end performance review time SO easy!
I hope this helped you see that the craziness doesn’t have to be part of your daily life. And now I’d love to hear from you. How do you stop the crazy in your life?
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