The phrase “work smarter, not harder” encourages an increase in productivity and efficiency. It can motivate an employee to identify the most important and necessary tasks and execute them with accuracy and completeness while eliminating from one’s day the unnecessary activities that add no value.
But without action steps to work smarter, the phrase lacks substance. Through the identification of the root cause, a manager can devise a specific solution to the barriers the employee is facing and possibly eliminate such roadblocks. The following framework can support the struggling employee and identify the root cause of the problem, strengthen the employee/manager relationship, encourage thoughtful and honest conversation, and promote collaboration between the two parties to identify relevant solutions. The framework may also positively impact other auditors in the department, as well as departmental stakeholders.
Acknowledge the problem If an employee has been behind and missing deadlines or has been putting in long hours, it is time to come to an agreement that he or she is experiencing a roadblock and his or her current approach is not sustainable for the long term (i.e., burnout). At this stage, validation from a manager can be encouraging.
Appreciate the employee Thanking an employee for his or her hard work can be meaningful. Recognition of the time and effort already expended helps promote a constructive dialogue. The long hours may be indicative of an employee who cares about his or her work product, but may not know the best way to get that valuable work product completed. An employee who displays this level of dedication is one the department wants to retain.
Identify the root cause Though an employee may be able to define the problem, there may be other obstacles at play that he or she is not defining as obstacles. The employee should walk through a typical day — or week — with his or her manager to determine which tasks and activities the employee is completing and not completing. This conversation should be treated like a typical internal audit walkthrough, with a thoughtful mix of open-ended and closed-ended questions, such as:
- What deliverables is he or she producing?
- What is he or she requested to perform?
- What is the estimated time it takes to complete each task? For example, if an employee is a junior- or entry-level associate, the demands and pressures placed on him or her by the senior or supervising auditor while on an engagement may be enlightening — and surprising.
Define the roadblock After discussing a typical day or week, the employee’s responsibilities, challenges, and habits should become more clear. At this point, it may be possible to identify what is holding the employee back from working efficiently and productively. Ask the employee what is holding him or her back. If the response doesn’t align with the manager’s thoughts, continue to ask the why and how questions. Once the issues are clearly identified, encourage the employee to think of them as roadblocks. Most roadblocks can eventually be cleared; for those that can’t be (e.g., permanent road closure), there is always an effective detour (e.g., a reasonable and realistic solution).
Devise a solution Once the roadblock is defined, a solution can be determined and implemented. Three of the more common solutions are listed below. Depending on the roadblock, however, a different solution may be more effective.
- Training – Is this employee new to the company? Maybe he or she is confused about the company’s systems or industry terminology. Is this employee new to internal audit? Maybe he or she is confused about a particular internal audit process. Connect the employee with the specific resource that can assist him or her in learning and development. The resource may be someone within internal audit, within the company, or external to the company, but should be someone who has the knowledge and can teach the skill effectively. The best option would be someone who came from a similar background as the employee (e.g., external hire), who previously experienced such a roadblock (e.g., help with the company systems), or has achieved success (e.g., a systems subject matter expert). Working with this type of mentor can provide much needed reassurance that successis attainable.
- Resource allocation – Has the employee taken on too much? Maybe he or she volunteered for too many projects or is performing work that is above the knowledge, skill, and experience of his or her ability? Lighten the employee’s workload and frame it positively. One way is to explain to the employee which tasks are the most important. Once these tasks are completed timely and accurately (and the associated skills are mastered), other projects can be added to further develop the employee’s skills. Another way to frame it positively might be for the manager to share with the employee whether he or she has been in the same situation.
- Process improvements – One or more of the internal audit processes may be inefficient. Sometimes new employees can see this, whereas experienced employees are accustomed to doing things a certain way and don’t recognize the inefficiencies. There may be time-consuming deliverables that are either not necessary or duplicative, and there may be opportunities to improve and streamline processes.
The solution of process improvements requires management to identify the full population of tasks that are completed within the department and evaluate whether each task is necessary and not duplicative. However, once process improvements have been implemented, it may increase not just the employee’s efficiency, but that of other team members within the department.
Circle back Checking back in with the employee may be the most important step. Was the solution effective? How does the employee feel about the solution? Monitoring the employee’s progress through regular one-on-one meetings helps to ensure that the solution is operating as intended, and it continues open lines of communication between the manager and employee. And if the solution is not operating as intended, a determination can be made for why it is not and what can be done differently.
The framework provides an outline that can support hard-working team members who may need an encouraging conversation and guidance on how to implement such a strategy. By guiding employees in the direction of working smarter, it is more likely that companies will retain employees while seeing an increase in productivity and morale