How to Prevent "Fire Drills" in the Workplace

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Most of today's workforce has had to deal with "fire drills" in the workplace — the management of urgent matters that come up and must be addressed … yesterday. Some urgent matters are unavoidable; however, other issues that earn "emergency" status and cause pressure may not be as critical as people think. The influx of tight deadlines, client demands or a project crisis can create unnecessary "fire drills" in the workplace and add stress to staff members who already have an endless list of work that must get done.

Today's workforce can push the limits in ways that previous generations never imagined. While it used to require a telegraph or courier to communicate a message, it can now be done in an instant via a text, email or instant message. With the ability to easily change direction, the unexpected intrusion of an urgent matter or sudden shift in direction has become a standard part of today's workplace. In many organizations, the occurrence of the "fire drill" has become status quo.

If you return to the true purpose of a fire drill, it's an event that helps train people what to do in the case of an emergency. This type of practice and preparation is wise; however, when it comes to "fire drills" in the workplace that don't involve safety, there are dangers. Just like the boy who cried wolf, a continued state of crisis in the workplace could lead to eventual inaction, employee burnout and ineffective processes.

To prevent unnecessary "fire drills" from happening, HR leaders should strive to influence an organizational culture that supports preparation, resists perfection and challenges the status quo.

Emphasize Preparation

Rather than rewarding teams that get the job done "no matter what it takes," celebrate and recognize the leaders and teams that plan and prepare. Reward them for the organized approach that allows them to complete their work and meet deadlines in ways that don't cause needless stress. As part of your culture, emphasize the value of preparation and express appreciation for the prevention of unnecessary urgency.

Settle for "Good Enough"

It may seem like encouraging employees to settle for good enough is like telling them it's OK to quit. In the case of the endless edits to the presentation, or the last-minute decision to create a new report that will be used once or any other urgent situation that requires an unnecessary fire drill, it's likely that good enough would have been … well, good enough. Empower your employees to speak up and say when it's better to leave something as it is rather than pushing it to perfection.

Communicate That It's OK to Challenge the Status Quo

If you find there are more cases than not when a sense of urgency is unwarranted, communicate to employees that it's OK to challenge the status quo. Provide them with the following questions to ask that will help evaluate the level of urgency:

  • What's behind this sense of urgency?
  • What's the risk if we don't take immediate action?
  • What less-urgent options do we have?

In some cases, the answer to those questions may indicate that a sense of urgency may in fact be warranted. In others, the answers may reveal that a "fire drill" isn't required. By communicating that it's OK to ask questions before taking action, you empower your workforce and ultimately help reduce stress levels that lead to eventual burnout.

No matter the organization, urgent issues come up and "fire drills" to get the job done are part of our lives at work. But a state of continued crisis in the workplace isn't effective; it can lead to indecision, low employee engagement and unproductive work practices. An organizational culture that supports preparation, resists perfection and challenges the status quo makes it possible to avoid false alarms and create a sense of urgency only when it matters most.

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