Studies have found January to be the least-productive month of the year, and this year, the problem is compounded by headline-making layoffs, so-called quiet quitting, and a broader productivity slump. The signs are strong that 2023 won’t be an easy year to navigate, which is all the more reason to shake things up at the start. The author presents four ways to breathe new life into this notoriously dreary time of year.
The tinsel is down, Starbucks has returned to its regular cups, office holiday parties have come and gone, and the sun sets while the workday is still in full swing. It’s no wonder so many workplaces lack buzz and energy in January.
Studies have found January to be the least productive month of the year. And this year, the problem is compounded by headline-making layoffs, so-called quiet quitting, and a broader productivity slump: In October 2022, a Washington Post analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that during the first half of 2022, worker productivity plummeted “by the sharpest rate on record going back to 1947.”
But first impressions matter. And despite the adage that you don’t get a second chance to make one, the new calendar year offers an opportunity to shake things up in a meaningful way — infusing organizations with energy and excitement that can fuel productivity year-round. Here are some strategies for breathing new life into this notoriously dreary time of year.
By devoting the first month or quarter of the year to experimenting with new tools, technologies, processes, and meeting cadences, companies may discover techniques and approaches that are worth keeping. The more radical the departure from business as usual, the more likely employees are to break old habits and reexamine what brings out their best.
Shopify made headlines (and no doubt got its workers’ attention) by announcing a plan to eliminate most meetings for a two-week period. In a memo to employees, Shopify estimated that 10,000 meetings would disappear from workers’ calendars, freeing up 76,500 hours. Employees were urged to think critically before reinstating meetings after the trial period’s conclusion.
What if your organization replaced daily hour-long meetings with 15-minute agile touch-bases, supplemented by Slack conversations throughout the day? Or took a temporary break from Slack altogether? Or set aside one day a week as a meeting-free zone? Because this period of experimentation has a predefined end point, it’s perfectly acceptable if practices fall flat.
As proponents of the agile approach know, sometimes the key to success is failing spectacularly and quickly — then continuously iterating on a solution until it succeeds. The final product or strategy may be wildly different from the starting point.
Sometimes the most creative ideas for improving organizational effectiveness rise from the bottom. By inviting and encouraging employees to channel their own creativity into coming up with large and small ways to improve the organization, and designating February (or March) as a month when fast failure will be celebrated, leaders can crack open underexplored opportunities and spark new thinking that continues to flourish and evolve.
To kick off the “fail-fast” month, senior leaders might speak about their own most disastrous professional failures and what they learned from them. Companies can choose a range of the most promising new concepts to pilot, from marketing strategies to unusual projects to meeting modalities (Zoom vs. in person, for example), then hit the ground running.
In December, workers expect holiday gifts and notes of appreciation. When leaders surprise their people with food-delivery gift cards or employee recognition moments early in the new year, these gestures take on greater significance precisely because they don’t feel obligatory. Leaders might position such gestures as a “thank you in advance” for work to come in 2023, when many companies will be forced to do more with less.
An exercise called “asset mapping” gives employees an opportunity to recognize one another’s strengths. If conducted in person, each team member puts their name in the center of a piece of paper. Teammates surround one another’s names with messages describing what they see as each person’s chief assets. At the end of the exercise, each team member has a document attesting to their strengths, as perceived by their colleagues — and a stronger sense of connection to their team. You can do this practice with remote workers using Google docs.
Asset mapping can also be used to crowdsource solutions to work problems. Here, each team member poses a problem or question, such as, “What’s the most productive way to use brief gaps between meetings?” or “How do I best support someone returning from maternity leave?” This exercise is uncannily effective at tapping into people’s inner generosity and unleashing a sense of appreciation for colleagues’ wealth of expertise.
Reconnecting with What Matters Most
Another way to cut through the seasonal bleakness is to connect employees to what matters most. This may be the customers an organization caters to, the clients it serves, or users of the products it develops. When possible, it’s most powerful to make these connections happen in person, even if employees usually work remotely.
A law firm, for example, might bring in a client whose life or business was impacted by the firm’s work, which wouldn’t have been possible without team members who may never have heard that client’s name. A software company may bring in beta testers who found a new product especially helpful. Office workers who support a manufacturing company may take a trip to the factory floor.
Space for formal reflection after these encounters is critical. One quick but impactful exercise is to have employees map out the ways in which their work contributes to the organization’s overall mission. The idea is for people to see themselves as essential sparks in an awe-inspiring constellation.
A Second Chance to Make a First Impression
Each fall, the new school year — with its fresh notebooks and unfamiliar schedules — gives students a sense of excitement and possibility, even when it’s accompanied by a certain dread that the summer is over. We adults too often miss out on this yearly opportunity for renewal in our professional lives. The signs are strong that 2023 won’t be an easy year to navigate, which is all the more reason to shake things up at the start.