Kristina Wilson needed an employee to help her cover the phones 24/7 every weekend at her busy child care staffing agency, Sitters Studio, in Manhattan. But the weekend shift exhausted her, and whichever member of her four-person administrative staff handled the task would be drained of productivity for the rest of the week.

Her solution? Offer those who filled the shift an extra vacation day as a bonus, preferably the following week. Able to schedule more three-day weekends to recover from a marathon session answering the phones, employees—and Ms. Wilson, who also takes the bonus day—are more energetic. “Having one day off in the middle of the week feels like a special holiday,” said Ms. Wilson, founder of the five-year-old company, which, with a network of more than 100 sitters, is profitable and could hit $1 million in sales this year.

Leaders of many companies spent the recession asking employees to ramp up productivity—and found that workers, perhaps fearful of downsizing, rose to the challenge. Later, many bosses and employees never put on the brakes. Productivity among nonfarm workers rose at a 1.8% annual rate in the first quarter of 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. It may not be easy for executives to ask already overloaded staff members to shoehorn in more projects.

Fortunately, some of the best strategies for improving your team’s productivity involve changes you can make in the way that both you and your managers run your company. Here are some strategies recommended by experts and entrepreneurs.

Send less email

About 53% of workers waste one hour a day because of distractions such as email, according to a recent survey by online market research firm uSamp, commissioned by, a provider of “social email” software that is designed to help workers use collaboration programs like Google Docs and SharePoint more effectively. That might not seem like a lot, until you consider that this easily amounts to about 250 hours of wasted time a year. “When companies and bosses are in the habit of overusing email, it devastates productivity across the board,” said Garrett Miller, president of CoTria, a consultancy that advises companies in New York and elsewhere on how to make the most of their employees’ time. If you, as the boss, use email as your main avenue for communication, it will be hard for employees to cut down on checking email, even if you urge them to do so, says Mr. Miller. To lessen the anxiety they may feel towards peeking at their inbox less frequently, reduce the number of messages that you send, particularly by avoiding the “reply all,” function whenever possible, he suggests.

Empower employees to skip meetings

Many workers complain that meetings are sucking up much of their time, leaving few opportunities to sit at their desk and, for instance, write a report, notes Mr. Miller. However, they feel they have little control over how they spend their days because their company culture makes it hard to say “no” to meeting invitations, even when their role is minimal. His suggestion: Tell your team: “If you want to say no to a meeting, I’m going to give you permission to do that, and I’ll have your back.” Then, don’t hold it against them if they occasionally want to opt out of a meeting you’ve planned, so they can get a project done. “We need to allow people to protect their time,” Mr. Miller said.

Let employees hunker down, a transcription service with offices in New York and Ottawa, Canada, with nearly $1 million in sales, found that the productivity of some employees almost doubled when it started to allow a team of, say, two Web developers or two marketers work in tandem on a project at the same desk and same computer for two days a week with no interruptions, about six months ago. “It forces everyone to stay on task,” says Matt Whitteker, a founder and director of the company. The workers take scheduled breaks to check email and phone messages, so they aren’t incommunicado.

If you must hold a meeting, stick to the allotted time

To avoid late starts, some of Mr. Miller’s New York clients avoid scheduling meetings close to the morning rush hour, when transportation delays are often beyond employees’ control. He also advocates insisting on “hard starts” and “hard stops” for meetings, so they don’t expand to fill half of your employees’ day.

Improve your document management

The uSamp survey found that workers spend an average of 2.5 hours a week trying to find documents they need in their inboxes, file servers, cloud storage and other places. One way to minimize the time that team members spend searching for digital files is to store them in a centralized location, such as Microsoft SharePoint or Dropbox, says Mr. Miller. “Use a universal filing system, so everyone is filing in a similar manner,” he advised. The more you minimize petty distractions, the greater are the odds that you’ll find enthusiastic volunteers for a new project you want to get rolling.

– Eliaine Pofeldt

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