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Time to get serious about managing time at work

Amidst the ongoing debate about hybrid organisational models and new working patterns, there is a growing awareness that time is our most valuable asset. Helen Beedham, author, speaker and organisational expert, explains how business and HR leaders can manage collective working time more strategically in future.

Amidst the ongoing debate about hybrid organisational models and new working patterns, there is a growing awareness that time is our most valuable asset. Helen Beedham, organisational expert, speaker and author of The Future of Time: how ‘re-working’ time can help you boost productivity, diversity and wellbeing explains how business and HR leaders can manage collective working time more strategically in future.

We’re in the midst of a massive revolution in the world of work: we’re designing new operating models, launching new technologies and re-thinking the role of the office. Wellbeing and social cohesion are emerging as new organisational priorities, after employers have gained a greater appreciation of employees’ individual circumstances, needs and ambitions over the past 18 months of Covid-19. In parallel, there is ever-increasing scrutiny of how well companies are living up to their ESG commitments, leading more businesses to change their mindset away from a short-term focus on growth, shareholder return and profit maximisation at all costs towards a longer-term, more sustainable approach to operating that benefits all stakeholders and the natural environment.

But these exciting, forwarding-looking developments are being laid on top of a foundation that needs to be fundamentally re-laid.  Businesses are clinging onto a ‘one size fits all’ way of working that simply doesn’t work for everyone. Nor does it work, in the long-term, for the bottom line. Here is the evidence:

  • Overwork is common – our working hours in the UK are the longest in Europe- yet productivity has been in decline across OECD countries since 2000, particularly in the UK. We’re spending more time working than ever before, but achieving less.
  • There is well-established research proving that more diverse leadership teams and workforces lead to improved business performance across a range of metrics. Yet companies are making slow progress towards their diversity and inclusion goals, with stubborn gender and ethicity pay gaps and ‘stay gaps’ and still largely homogenous leadership teams.
  • Incidence of stress and mental ill health has been rocketing in recent years, costing the NHS £22 billion per annum and UK employers £45 billion per annum in sickness absence, lost productivity and additional recruitment costs.

A big part of this problem is that we massively undervalue working time.  We have long-established cultural norms around time and time management: our time culture is typically characterised by short-termism, speed, volume and bureaucracy. Added to that, we’re not good at noticing, acknowledging and debating our combined habits and choices about how we’re all spending our time at work.  This ‘time blindness’ prevents people from focusing on the important work, delivering at their best and flourishing in their careers. It creates winners and losers: those who can always put work first and give whatever it takes to get ahead, succeed. Those who for a whole host of reasons would benefit from a different time culture, find their jobs unsustainable or see their careers stagnate. Historically, when we’ve talked about better time management, we’ve always focused on fixing the individual by promoting ways we can each work harder, smarter, faster.

Businesses need to recognise that these organisational time norms aren’t fit for purpose any more. We can no longer afford to complacently kick our time blindness into the long-grass – we urgently need to find better ways of using our time at work. Here are three (of many) business reasons why:

  1. Making better use of employees’ time and attention brings you competitive advantage and helps you rebound faster from critical events.
  2. Companies with a longer-term orientation are proven to outperform their peers in earnings, revenue growth and market capitalisation.
  3. Continued failure to meet diversity goals will bring harsher commercial consequences for busineses everywhere.

We need to change our time culture by fixing the system, not the individual.  We can do this by looking critically at how our organisations are designed, at the way we work, at what we collectively spend our time doing and asking ourselves ‘Is there a better way? That works better for each employee and works better for the business?’.  Spoiler alert – there’s no off-the-shelf or quick fix solution. This isn’t about running wellbeing seminars and mindfulness sessions, or rolling out time management training. The solution is more complex and deep-rooted: it’s about how we structure our organisations, take decisions, collaborate together, manage work, lead teams and attend to interpersonal relationships in order to make best use of our collective working time. By managing our combined energy input better, companies are more likely to achieve their business and organisational goals.

Organisations who manage time at work well are doing the following:

  1. Adopting a laser-sharp focus on their purpose and priorities and helping people focus on the important work.
  2. Defining what they mean by ‘productive’ and measuring this. For example, last year one global organisation compared productivity in their Asia offices during 100% remote-working, a partial return to the office and 100% office-based working. Their discovery that productivity was lowest when people were split between home and the office influenced their design of their future hybrid-working model.
  3. Demonstrating ‘time intelligent’ leadership, or TQ, where leaders reflect on how they spend their own time and role model time-aware behaviours.
  4. Simplifying and digitalising their operating models and processes to reduce bureaucracy, duplication and inefficiency.
  5. Resourcing and managing work (and performance) transparently, focusing on what needs to be delivered rather than the time required as an input.
  6. Offering tailored time deals that give people more autonomy and choice over how, when and where they work not just day-to-day but across different life or career stages. Forward-thinking employers are increasingly promoting time-related practices and benefits that employees value such as meeting-free days and weeks, corporate ‘wellbeing’ days off, and longer stretches of paid leave for a wider range of reasons than historically permitted.
  7. Reducing time bias in their people management processes to ensure that people with different working patterns, career histories or backgrounds aren’t inequitably treated because they don’t ‘fit the mould’. This starts with designing time-flexible roles that cater for diverse preferences.
  8. Moving away from traditional working hours and distracting physical and virtual work spaces and fostering healthy work habits and environments which allow people to be highly productive in their working time. This includes nudging employees into better digital choices. For example, some companies have pre-designed meeting options so organisers can instantly choose between a 10 minute ‘check in’, a standup meeting, or a longer 1:1 or group call.
  9. Embracing an eco-system mindset with clients, partners, suppliers and employees where time for collaboration and creativity on shared issues and opportunities is explicitly valued.
  10. Making time for humanity at work by valuing individuals and rewarding inclusive behaviours not just task accomplishment.

So how do you begin to change your own time culture? Where do you start and in what order do you tackle things? The answer will be different for every organisation, depending on your business goals and the time culture that you have now and need in the future. What’s important is a tailored, comprehensive strategy that is firmly based on your business context; a piecemeal approach won’t help you genuinely transform the way people work. Following some key principles will get you off to a strong start and build support and momentum quickly for the changes you are introducing. Principles such as:

  1. Get good data on your current levels of productivity, wellbeing, diversity, and the employee experience.
  2. Find the hook – there is more than one way in to ‘re-working’ your time culture. Perhaps a recent conversation with another leader touched on this; or you’re grappling with a knotty issue that would benefit from a different use of people’s time.
  3. Pick one or more business opportunities or problems to experiment on, then set people ambitious goals and give them the freedom (with support) to come up with better ways of using their working time to achieve these goals.

By changing our organisational norms around time, we can create more sustainable, productive ways of working that will allow all kinds of talent to flourish.  If we’re successful,  people will use their time more effectively, be less neuro-depleted and benefit equally – regardless of background and personal circumstance – from fairer processes and career-enhancing opportunities.  Careers will last longer and richer diversity of thought and experience will lead to better creativity and decision-making.   More employees will be able to thrive and succeed, and employers will reap the benefits in terms of attracting and retaining talent, innovating and improving business performance.

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