Many business organisations place too much emphasis on the time spent at work. Employees who burn the midnight oil might be viewed as ‘dedicated’ to their work, while others who quietly get their work done during business hours might be passed over for a promotion.
Punching a time clock makes no sense for professional executives. Their contribution is not the time they spend on their work but the value they create through their knowledge. Bosses with orthodox mindsets create rules and norms not in the pursuit of efficiency but rather out of distrust. A local research analyst told me recently that a study done by him has revealed that fulltime executives work a total of three days a week, wasting the other two.
Modern management gurus tell us that placing importance on hours and physical presence over action and results leads to a culture of inefficiency and anxiety. The pressure of being required to sit at your desk until a certain time creates a factory-like culture that ignores a few basic laws of idea generation and human nature: (1) When the brain is tired, it doesn’t work well, (2) Idea generation happens on its own terms, (3) When you feel forced to execute beyond your capacity, you begin to hate what you are doing.
Of course, there is no shortcut for the perspiration required to make ideas happen. But the time required to complete a project successfully must reveal itself rather than be dictated. If you care about your work, you will do what it takes to get it done right. As such, your performance should be measured by your ability to get work done on time and done well. Your decisions about when and how you completed the work should not matter.
The inefficient hours in the office could be utilized out of the office as creative stimulation. Time spent in the outer world is productive if it is increasing the rate of idea generation and providing the mental focus required to capture and complete action steps when back in the office. There is a value to mixing up the workday, working out, grabbing a cup of tea.
But what if you’re not in a position to change your organisation’s policies? Within your own sphere, you can focus on results rather than hours worked -- both by using your time more efficiently in the office and by protecting your time away from the office.
Let us see how:
Know your priorities
Many things that you do at work are probably not the best use of your time. For instance, many professionals often spend much more time than necessary perfecting relatively low-priority tasks. Even if employees’ perfectionist tendencies are pushing more important priorities to the wayside, people still feel and appear productive -- “Since I’m sitting at my desk doing things, I must be making progress at my tasks,” they might subconsciously think.
The way to fix this habit is easy to say but hard to do: Understand what really matters to you, your boss and your organisation and then be willing to be less than perfect on your lower-priority tasks.
Handle meetings professionally
Meetings! Meetings! Meetings! Executives all are inundated with meetings, many which turn out to be a ‘report out’ of recent tasks. How do you reach beyond this to use meeting time more strategically?
There are several steps we can take to help keep us on track of approaching the strategic level vs. the tactical.
Are you holding your meetings in the same room week after week, month after month? If you’re trying to generate high-level, creative thinking, consider moving your meeting to a different location. Often the barrier starts with the very walls that typically hold you in.
Provide a clear meeting purpose. One of the biggest mistakes is to allow meetings to get off track. Be sure to set clear meeting expectations in advance of the meeting so participants will know that a) their time is important to you, b) that you respect their thoughts and participation and c) that you will not allow other participants to derail the purpose.
What outcome is expected? Often, we set agendas without discussing the needed outcomes. If you have a specific need to solve a problem, design something, create a timeline, etc., spell that out clearly so that the team can work toward the goal in the time allotted.
Provide background and discussion. Why are we in business and how does our team support the business? When holding high-level, strategic meetings, it’s important to remind participants why the business exists. You may think this sounds like something that can and should be skipped, but without this step, the team often reverts to talking about the day-to-day tasks and small goals instead of focusing on the larger purpose.
How do we envision the future next year, three years, or five years from today? Envisioning something is very different from writing down tasks you hope to complete in the next year. Talk about how changes proposed will impact the business in the next year and what barriers need to be addressed.
Prioritize. Now that you have the visioning complete, talk through team projects and begin to prioritize them in order of the ones that will achieve that goal. This may mean taking fun projects off the list or ranking them lower in priority. Be clear with the team that the goal is to aid in not overloading them, but to provide tighter focus on more attainable goals.
Discuss results on priority items. This is the one portion of the meeting where ‘reporting out’ becomes appropriate. Only after you’ve talked through the strategy pieces should you spend time on the steps that get you there. Again, reinforce that the results should be presented in a way that ties them back to the business impact, not just reporting for the sake of sharing.
By engaging your team in a strategic, thoughtful way, you should see a difference in their ability to see the big picture vs. focus on day-to-day outcomes.
Don’t forget to recharge
An organisation that places too much emphasis on time spent at the office probably neglects the importance of time spent away from the office. In order to be productive at work, professionals need to be able to recharge, physically and mentally.
Keep physically fit. On the physical dimension, sleep and exercise are often the first two personal activities to face the chopping block when professionals have to increase their hours spent in the office. But this reallocation of time doesn’t actually help people get more done. In my experience, you would get more done during the day if they worked a little less -- and used that time to get extra sleep and some physical exercise.
Avoid burnout. Long hours at work wear people down mentally. All too often, I see professionals work to 8, 9, or 10 every night and go into the office every day of every weekend, even if there is no real crisis. While these professionals might be increasing their output over the short-term, this type of overwork inevitably leads to burnout. And if you’re burned out, you’re not productive.
So you should assertively protect your personal time. That means being firm with your boss about times when you are not available -- family dinners or your child’s soccer games, perhaps.
Don’t be afraid to speak up. Obviously, asking for more flexibility at work is easier said than done. You might fear that the mere act of requesting time off would make you come off as ‘lazy’ or ‘not a team player’. But while it cannot be guaranteed that every request will be successful, there is little harm in asking politely. Believe it or not, most good bosses understand your desire to spend some time with your children or enjoy a romantic dinner with your spouse. Your boss can’t address your needs unless he or she knows what they are.
(The writer, a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)