Process makes perfect: how to establish your team’s workflow

Having a workflow — or in other words, a process of how you get stuff done — can make work so much easier, whether it’s on your own or with a team.

You know when you’re trying to get stuff done, but you end up doing it in what’s likely the least efficient way possible, making things way more difficult than they should be? I do this all the time, and I know I’m not alone (at least that’s what they tell me). It’s not a great feeling, and it’s usually because I’m not organized. This happens when collaborating as well. When there’s no system guiding us, it’s easy to feel out of the loop and become unproductive.

There are many types of workflows. There are the famous ones, like Getting Things Done or the framework behind 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But more common are customized workflows, ones that we make up out of necessity that fit our personal needs. Crafting a deliberate system can give your team a huge advantage in the workplace.

A great team workflow can do these things:

It can be kind of overwhelming to figure out out what workflow will work best for your team. There are many tools, tactics, and systems out there. As we’ve tried to figure out the best ways to work, the biggest thing we’ve learned along the way is to keep it simple.

A workflow doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it shouldn’t be complicated, or it might end up being more trouble than it’s worth.

Take a step back for a few minutes and think about how your team gets stuff done. Don’t overcomplicate things. Here are a few basic ideas to think about.

Create an environment where people can do their best work

As Charles Duhigg says in his fantastic book The Power of Habit, “Simply giving employees a sense of agency — a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority — can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.”

When we know how our work fits into the larger context, we feel empowered to take control and make decisions on our own. Showing people that the work they do is important goes a long way in creating a motivated and productive team. A recent Gallup survey found that 51% of Americans were not engaged at work and a full 17% are “actively disengaged.” Imagine what your team could do if you could increase engagement by just a few percentage points.

How do you show people that? Here are a few ideas we’ve come up with:

  • Make sure everyone understands the larger mission of the company and how their role contributes to the company’s success. 71% of employees think managers don’t spend enough time explaining goals and plans.
  • Include goal-setting in your team’s workflow, and make sure that for every goal you set, you think about how it will help achieve the higher-level goals of the business.
  • Establish a decision-making hierarchy for every project that clearly defines who owns which pieces of the work. Who is making each decision, and who is a reviewer or contributor. This way, everyone knows what to expect, people feel ownership, and decisions get made more quickly.
  • Encourage openness and feedback. When we have ideas or concerns in the workplace, we want to feel heard, like our thoughts are taken seriously. Be sure to establish easy communication and feedback mechanisms for your team.  This leads into the next point…

Decide how you want to communicate

In a team setting, most problems arise from a simple lack of communication. An estimated $37 billion is lost each year due to poor communication in the workplace. I know it sounds weird, but having a “communication code” can prevent miscommunication, saving a lot of time and money. We’ve found it helpful to establish some routines and habits that help prevent miscommunications and streamline our collaborative and individual process.

Every team has many different ways they communicate — in meetings, on the phone, email, chat, and so on. Without a system, you’re not making the best use of everyone’s time. It’ll only take a few minutes to decide what works best for your team and let everyone know.

For example:

If it’s urgent, ping them in Slack.

If it’s not urgent, send an email or create a task in Asana.

If it’s complicated, talk on the phone, Skype, or in person.

This way you won’t have to continuously check your email in case a team member has an urgent question. You won’t need to have a super long email chain going back and forth, because you’ll know you should just talk on the phone and get it out of the way.

Have a place for knowledge

Personally, I prefer to work as autonomously as possible. When everyone is heads down on work, it sometimes feels like an intrusion to ask questions  — especially if I have a lot of them! And I am happy to answer my team’s questions, but it can be distracting if I’m in the middle of something.

One way to prevent question overload is to have a central place for information. When someone needs to know something, where do they go? Figure out a place where all of your team’s information can live, where everyone can update it and refer back to it. Whether it’s a wiki, a document, or a detailed project plan, taking a few minutes here and there to keep it updated saves everyone a lot of time.

When there’s a system in place for sharing and storing information, many miscommunications and distractions disappear. And that means happier employees all around.

Make a habit out of a few key things

My favorite thing about habits is they help prevent decision fatigue, which basically means that the more decisions you make, the harder it is to continue making good decisions (or any decisions at all.) The less we have to think about the little things, the more energy we have to focus on the important stuff.

We’ve developed a habit of making key decisions about responsibility and expectations upfront, so that our team can focus on other important decisions throughout the project.

Make key decisions about responsibility and expectations upfront

Defining Roles

Who is responsible for what? This seems like the most simple question, but it’s crazy how many places I’ve worked where the roles are so vague that no one really knows what’s going on. This obviously results in a lot of wasted time and overlap.

People should have defined roles within the company, and also within each project. On a project level, it’s as easy as assigning someone to a task.

Defining Deliverables

What is it and when is it due? Not just what is the task, but what is the thing that results from the task?

For example, a task might be: research spaceships. But the deliverable is: a ranked list of the best spaceships. A task always has a reason. The deliverable is that reason — the tangible thing that results from the work. The deliverable should have a due date as well, or else you’ll just spend all of your time researching spaceships and never get anywhere.

Setting Expectations

How thorough should the spaceship list be? Does it need pictures, links to more information, a recommendation on which spaceship you should use for your trip to the moon?

When expectations are clear, it also saves a ton of back-and-forth questions, which we all know is a major time-suck.

Design your workflow

This is actually the easiest step. Once you’ve thought through your team’s style of work, it’s just a simple research and elimination process to choose the tools and system that works best for you. Once this system is established, you’ll barely have to think about it. It’ll just be a part of how you work.

Every team is different, and every workflow is different. Take some time to figure out what kind of system works for you.

One thing we’ve learned is to keep tabs on our system to make sure it’s working. Once a month or so, check in with the team to make sure all is going smoothly. If there’s a hiccup, make an adjustment and move on.

Having a workflow in place, no matter how simple, brings so much sanity to a team. When there’s a defined system in place, everyone knows exactly what their responsibilities are and how it will contribute to the bigger picture. Everyone knows what’s expected of them and when, they know who to ask if they have a question. It’s an empowering way to work, and empowered people are productive people.
What is your team’s workflow?

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