Let’s NOT do the Time Warp again

Rethinking the value of time to our organizations

Of all the factors that influence the performance and health of organizations and employees alike, our use of time is both the most holistically impactful and the most frequently overlooked. In this article, I will present my perspective on how our relationship between the concepts of time and value have become warped and propose an alternative. If I am successful in persuading you to reframe your organization’s relationship with time, this may be your first significant step into the future of work. If approached correctly it will give current and potential employees every reason to choose your organization as the place where they contribute their currently untapped superpowers.

Current time structures

The eight-hour working day was first normalised by Henry Ford in the 1920s in a bid to offer employees eight-hours of work, eight-hours of sleep and eight-hours of leisure time per day. This had the added advantage of turning the workforce into customers. A laudable early attempt at achieving a “work/life balance” for factory workers that probably feels more elusive than ever to those of us working in the modern digital economy. So why are our organizations still dominated by something that was designed for workplaces operating a century ago? Worse still, many of the reasons that were used to justify the eight-hour working day, which replaced dire working conditions of up to 16 hours per day, have been lost as we have sleep-walked into the ‘always-on’ age of digital and smartphone technology. For many, a normal working week constitutes 70-90+ hours. The organizational, human, environmental and societal costs of this are truly monumental, but often hidden.

Where is the data?

As a consulting expert, one of the principles of my practise is to offer research-led and data-driven solutions to my clients. It stands to reason that leaders prefer concepts and approaches that have been proven both in theory and in practise before they are introduced to their organization.

When I speak to leaders about why they have the working day structures that they do, I am met with responses such as ‘well we have always done it like this’. When I ask them if they have analyzed what risks and/or benefits the current approach presents to their organization, I am either met with a sheepish silence or they somewhat defensively explain ‘it’s so our employees can deliver the work we require’. Some also go on to refer to employment law.

It is absurd that, as leaders, we have failed for so long to properly analyze and optimize the most valuable resource we have – time. In no other part of our organizations would leaders be taken seriously if their answer to changing business needs was ‘let’s just do it the way we always have’. Even some of the world’s most revered leaders have sorely neglected to treat time with the same discipline and rigour that they do other business levers. Our relationship with time has become warped, because as business has moved forward, time has stood still.

There is now both significant academic and real-world evidence demonstrating clearly that reduced hours and flexible working arrangements create benefits and reduce risks for all types of organizations. Yet in the main, these continue to be ignored in favour of the status-quo. The principal reasons for this failure to adapt are typically a dominance of fear and a lack of trust. Neither should be guiding healthy decision-making in place of reliable data.

The cost of old habits dying hard

In her book ‘The Healthy Workplace’, Leigh Stringer eloquently explains why the eight-hour structure is disadvantageous to the type of work we now require from our ‘knowledge’ employees. Few organizations have done the necessary analysis to understand how to get the highest volume of high-value contributions from their current workforce. The impact is that as work becomes increasingly sedentary, the hours spent at work are the unhealthiest in our day. This leads to declining employee health, engagement, and satisfaction. In many knowledge-based industries productivity has stalled at circa three hours per day. Employee costs are escalating as turnover, presenteeism and burnout increase.

Often each individual cost is small and undetectable. Yet, when combined they not only add up to a significant financial burden, but they represent lost opportunity costs in terms of hampered innovation, resilience, growth, and attractiveness to potential talent.
Next Jump, an innovative employee benefits consultancy based in New York, is a Deliberately Developmental Organization (DDO) in which every employee spends 50% of their time working on HR and culture. This approach has enabled Next Jump to grow to a $2Bn ecommerce company serving 70% of Fortune 1000 companies with fewer than 150 employees. Food for thought indeed.

The future of work

Google search volumes for “future of work” have more than tripled in the last decade, indicating a clear expectation that change is on the way and that to be successful, organizations will soon need to offer very different contract terms to those that dominate today. To have any chance of successfully optimizing our workforce, wise leaders will need to stop judging the value of today’s knowledge employee by their input (time spent at desk) and focus completely on their output (value-added contribution). Andrew Barnes of ‘The 4-Day Week’ recommends contracts should be governed by agreed productivity. This should be preferable for employers because the ROI on employee costs becomes both measurable and guaranteed.

The Motley Fool, a financial advisory firm based in Virginia in the US, have implemented a high-level policy allowing employees to work how, when and where they like with unlimited annual leave entitlements. While it may seem an extreme position, this courageous move has yielded an enviably low turnover rate of less than 2%, representing enormous associated cost savings amongst a multitude of other benefits.

The alternative approach

As leaders it is our responsibility to ensure our organizations are strong, sustainable, and fit for the future. To do so we must be open to analyzing and challenging orthodoxies when they cease to be of value. In this spirit of opportunity and discovery I would urge all leaders to explore the studies that have analyzed the impact of both reducing working hours and increasing flexibility for all employees without reducing salary. Studies have shown repeatedly that the gains achieved by doing so far outweigh any short-term costs required to make the shift.

The literature and data point to a raft of benefits for employees, society, and the environment. But the biggest winners are without doubt the organizations themselves who, simply put, yield an increase in both the quantity and quality of work. Those who move early, will reap multiple first-mover advantages including increased revenue, profit, positive public perception, staff retention, customer satisfaction, innovation, resilience, team cohesion…the list goes on.

The final word

In today’s fast-paced world, standing still is a strategy for extinction. Reframing time is a low-cost opportunity to propel your organization into the future of work. To do so, leaders must act courageously and trust their employees to energize their vision. After all, they have so much to gain if we collectively succeed.

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