In Estonia, the business landscape is dominated by small companies and organisations. Frequently, work needs to be completed in a "every second counts" manner, as clients, partners, or even government ministers await deliverables. The more important the stakeholder, the quicker the turnaround needs to be. Often, additional obligations arise unexpectedly, outside of previously agreed work plans. However, with a limited number of employees, someone's calendar must accommodate these new tasks. But whose?

If we're being honest, our thoughts naturally turn to those capable and diligent individuals who consistently deliver high-quality work on tight deadlines. Different organisations may refer to these employees as "shining stars", "top talents", or "key players". Regardless of the label, the concept remains the same - these are the people who willingly shoulder more responsibility because they have the desire, capacity, and expertise to go above and beyond. Often, these individuals are also quick workers, whether driven by a strong sense of duty or inherent motivation, making them both swift and reliable.

However, a concerning trend, often joked about in office memes, is that the most diligent employees are "rewarded" with more work, and then a bit more, and then perhaps a little extra on top. As the saying goes, there's a kernel of truth in every jest. This joke may take a dark turn if these hard-working, dedicated individuals reach a point of burnout or decide to leave the organisation.

Ironically, it is these very "shining stars" who are most likely to introduce and implement innovative solutions within the organisation. They possess the ability and drive to breathe new life into the company, boosting competitiveness and efficiency. But how can they achieve this if they are perpetually buried under day-to-day tasks and additional responsibilities? The frank answer is that, in such a scenario, very little can be accomplished. For these key players to effectively test, experiment with, and implement new solutions, they must be given adequate time and space.

So, before reading further, take a moment to honestly consider whether you have the genuine desire and means to provide your top performers with the opportunity to explore new solutions. If so, read on.

How, then, can we ensure that essential work is completed without compromising competitiveness? Better yet, how can we enhance it?

One approach to boosting an organisation's competitiveness and efficiency is to improve digital capabilities. The options here are quite diverse, ranging from leveraging existing tools and solutions to exploring the artificial intelligence (AI) tools that have generated significant buzz over the past year.

When it comes to adopting creative AI applications, for better or worse, the process differs from implementing conventional technology. It's not as simple as toggling the "BOLD" button in Word and having all future text appear in bold. Different solutions need to be thoroughly tested before they can be rolled out. While many people are capable of creating simple prompts, crafting more complex ones requires time, including for testing. The same holds true for more sophisticated solutions, whether GPTs or so-called "box products" like Writesonic, Gamma, or Jasper. Questions that have likely already surfaced in discussions among organisations aiming to enhance their digital capabilities include: Which tools would be the best fit for us? Is ChatGPT alone sufficient, or should we opt for a paid version? Maybe we need Copilots instead? Why are these tools valuable in the first place? Should we be mindful of any regulations? And so on.

Your top performers could likely answer all of these questions, but arriving at those answers takes time. How can they carve out that time when there's already a mountain of other work to tackle?

Firstly, it's important to recognise that while introducing digital tools requires an initial time investment, it is highly likely to streamline and optimise workflows in the long run. It's doubtful that anyone has ever claimed that digitalisation has had a ruinous effect on their company's competitiveness, at least not in Estonia.

With that in mind, we recommend engaging in a thought exercise and considering the following ideas:

Delegation or redistribution of responsibilities

Review your top performers' tasks and ensure they truly align with their capabilities and potential. There's a good chance you'll discover a number of routine activities on their calendars simply because, in your view, others lack the know-how. Some tasks may have also remained theirs "historically", i.e., because that's how it's always been. In reality, however, these individuals may have long since outgrown these tasks, and someone else may be fully prepared to take them on. Therefore, it's wise to periodically assess who has available capacity and reshuffle tasks accordingly.

Reorganising work hours and offering flexible schedules

Examine how your top performers are utilising their time. Have you allotted them sufficient, dedicated space to explore new opportunities and bring fresh ideas into the company? While it may seem like a well-worn topic, it bears repeating. Consider implementing flexible work arrangements that empower your key players to better manage their time. For instance, allow employees to choose when they come into the office or work remotely, enabling them to focus on creative tasks when it suits them best. Introduce other flexible formats, such as dedicating at least two "Innovation Fridays" per month, during which employees can work on projects that may fall outside their daily responsibilities but foster creativity and generate novel solutions to organisational challenges. Another option is to organise sprint sessions, hackathons, or workshops that involve external partners in hands-on discussions.

Job redesign

If your organisation lacks an innovation specialist or manager role, consider creating one. As mentioned earlier, this doesn't necessarily entail a new position; it can be accomplished by restructuring an existing employee's responsibilities (likely one of your cherished top performers).

There are several approaches to this. For example, some of the previous tasks may remain under the key player's purview, but in place of the reassigned duties, they can take on responsibilities such as driving innovation or enhancing digital capabilities (including experimenting with AI solutions) within the company. In this case, it's crucial to ensure that the remaining and new responsibilities form a cohesive whole.

Engaging external specialists

Review the frequency and nature of your top performers' tasks. There may be certain duties that only arise a few times a year and consequently take longer to complete because they require a "refresher" each time. For example, in a small company, this could include recruiting new employees or executing a marketing campaign. Some organisations may not even have a dedicated HR manager, leaving recruitment to other team members. While these individuals may be capable of handling such tasks, it likely takes them significantly longer. In such cases, it may be more prudent to outsource these responsibilities, freeing up your team to focus on more pressing matters. Alternatively, consider leveraging the services of freelancers.

Prioritising and adopting a project-based approach

We strongly recommend collaborating with your top performers to identify tasks that aren't currently "on fire". In other words, are there any areas or activities that could be temporarily put on hold? It often feels like the to-do list is never-ending and the work is infinite. Take a moment to sit down with your key players and analyse their responsibilities using an importance scale (perhaps employing a traffic light method) to pinpoint only the most critical activities. Then, work together to determine if any of these tasks can be paused for a short period (e.g., a month or two) to allow for time to be invested in development activities, testing new solutions, and integrating them into the company—in essence, carving out time to drive organisational innovation.

In summary, our call to action is this:

Give your top performers the time and space to experiment and play with new solutions. Of course, the parameters and conditions of this "play time" must be mutually agreed upon, such as how promising solutions or findings will be presented to other employees and implemented within the organisation. However, the first step is to identify and allocate specific time blocks. If it's truly impossible to grant people additional time, innovations will not materialise on their own.Regrettably, substantive changes cannot be achieved through superficial adjustments.However, you can be confident that by providing your team with flexible opportunities that allow room for new solutions despite the challenges, you will preserve their enthusiasm and job satisfaction.