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Mar 14, 2022

For years now, I’ve been concerned that managers have been sold a dud story when it comes to productivity.

Sadly the notion that working more hours is good, and that to get ahead people must flop into bed exhausted each day, just doesn’t seem to be going away. In fact, in some sectors it seems to be getting worse; because even since the pandemic (where theoretically homeworkers have got back their commute), we still seem to be working people as flat out as ever.

If we look at it objectively, strolling into a bedroom to work instead of traveling to an office by car or train, should give workers back a day of extra time a week. But I don’t see people’s working lives improving. In fact data suggests people are just working longer. Where I live – in Australia – employees are clocking up 3 billion unpaid hours every year. In the U.S. workers work an average of 1,767 hours per year versus an OECD country average of 1,687.

HR needs to put a stop to it.

Of course, I understand HR professionals are often between a rock and a hard place. They’re typically well-intentioned to employees’ needs. But at the same time, they’re also beholden to the business, and representing it and its needs. And that creates conflict.

But in all my years writing about productivity, one thing hasn’t changed – the sort of panic that organizations still seem to whip up about working more hours.

The truth is, the sense of urgency organizations seem to instill is entirely self-created. Stuff generally gets done. What HRDs really ought to be pushing for is for bosses to recognize this, and recognizing that the more time people put in (hours), the less the quality of output often becomes. So how can HR start to make a difference? I see two key lessons that could be learned:

  • Take 15% back: If we accept that fact [and we need to] that most employees are only working at 80% capacity, HR needs to find policies/introduce training to managers to ensure staff are allowed 15% of their time – about an hour per day – where that time is what I call ‘protected time’. This is not goofing around time, but time that employees can use to get on top of what I call their ‘activity horizon’ – the things they have coming up.
  • Introduce some ‘adaptive capacity’: The purpose of taking back time back is to create ‘adaptive capacity’. Too often employees are in a state of ‘surge’ – a state the body isn’t well designed to cope with. Adaptive capacity is time to look at things differently; time which allows people to come up with new ideas for solving problems. Remember, the mind is for having ideas, not storing them. A continually buzzing brain is not a good thing.

Good managers should be receptive to this:

The problem with both these notions is that unless HR really pushes the value of these changes, employees will always slip into the feeling that taking back time goes against the grain of the company culture; that it is somehow not allowed, or undesired.

Good managers should be receptive to interventions that genuinely make their people happier and healthier, but HR has to ensure that change is allowed, and is normal, and eventually become part of the culture of that business.

Find solutions that work for you:

Businesses I’ve worked with are trying to find ways to accommodate this for their own people. Some have instituted policies around not holding meetings before 10am or after 3pm, so people have time to plan their day ahead, or plan their day tomorrow. It doesn’t often matter what the specific times are – it’s more that they create new boundaries.

Banish learned helplessness:

What’s key, however, is that HR must also handle pushback from staff around helping them manage their time better. While it sounds paradoxical, some might not want help. They might legitimately fear that they’ll simply be given more work. After all, the excuse ‘I have to much on’ is better than being seen to have too little. But this is ‘learned helplessness’. HR should really be providing their staff with the tools for knowing how they can get on top of things.

Better news is on the horizon:

What’s better news, is that conversations – no matter how embryonic they might be in the U.S. right now – are starting to happen about things like a four-day week. In America firms that have committed to a four day (or 32 hour) working week include Kickstarter, Basecamp, software company Monograph, data company, content marketing company, Nectafy, Shake Shack and others.

What I all think we need to remember is that work needs to be a place of calm rather than a place of craziness. Few people ever really ‘cruise’ in their job, and it’s right that employers expect their eight hours a day. But the expectation that we need to do more should really be consigned to history if we are serious about the wellbeing and productivity of our staff.