The quest for flexibility
What would you do if you won the lottery? Maybe you’d choose to build your dream home, travel more, retrain and change career or support causes you believe in. Whatever your answer, it’s a good way to see what choices you’d make if money was no object.
What if time wasn’t as much of an issue? What would you do with an extra four hours a week? Work more? Exercise more? Read more? Watch more tv? Simply take the time to have a coffee and think?
Between the pressures of work, family, commuting, hobbies, life admin and unexpected bumps in the road, there never seems to be enough time for everything we want to do.
For employers and managers, time is a precious commodity that requires an ongoing balancing act. We want to deliver projects for clients, we want to deliver value for shareholders, we want to be productive and we want to grow our market share. But we also want to build a happy, motivated, empowered team.
Research suggests that one of the key things today’s employees want is flexibility and the ability to work on their own terms, wherever and whenever they want. With property prices and rents forcing employees to live further from their offices and endure long commutes, flexible working hours can help employees to avoid rush hour – or the option to work from home can remove the need to commute altogether. And more flexible work patterns can help parents to juggle childcare and work – something that is critical to ensure gender parity in all industries at all levels.
Flexible working arrangements make sense for employees for many reasons, but employers benefit too, especially in tight labour markets where they are fighting to attract and retain top talent.
According to the 2018 global millennial survey from professional services firm Deloitte, flexible working arrangements boost employee loyalty. “Not only do millennials appreciate not being tied to strict hours or locations, they also value the trust their employers demonstrate in granting that flexibility,” Deloitte’s report notes.
Anne O’Leary, chief executive of Vodaphone Ireland, recently told the Broadly Speaking podcast that the company tries to only schedule meetings between 9am and 5pm so they don’t disadvantage those who have caring or exercise commitments before and after work. Employees can choose the hours they work to reduce their time stuck in traffic and Vodafone has also introduced unlimited leave.
O’Leary has seen that happier employees equal a more productive workforce. She says at Vodafone, “flexible working is just part of life – you can dial in, you can video in, you can IM in and it doesn’t really matter where you are. It’s about trust and empowerment.”
She adds: “People work in different ways. Some people are morning people, some people are evening people, some people want to work right through lunch. You have to have environments that work for each of those people. As a people manager, it’s understanding there isn’t one rule for all… You have to put in the flexible policies if you want to attract the good people and keep the good people.”
Redefining work patterns
Having the flexibility to work their required hours in a way that makes sense for their circumstances is certainly a positive for employees. But some companies are going even further, offering staff unlimited holidays, shorter working weeks and reduced working hours.
A little under a year ago New Zealand financial services firm Perpetual Guardian trialled a four-day work week for its 240 employees in a bid to empower staff and boost productivity. The company promised to pay staff their full salary for a four-day week and said there was no expectation for staff to do four longer days. After an eight-week trial that garnered international attention, the company decided to offer the four-day option to all full-time employees. Staff can choose their weekly ‘rest day’ and continue to receive their full salary and benefits, provided they meet certain productivity targets.
Andrew Barnes, Perpetual Guardian’s founder and managing director, said the switch to a four-day week was about “getting improved productivity from greater workplace efficiencies”.
He added: “The productivity measures set and monitored by our leadership teams confirmed we achieved this. Importantly, the researchers ascertained that our staff’s wellbeing and engagement also improved through the trial. There’s no downside for us in going ahead with this. We have proven the concept and developed a model workable for our business.”
In a paper written in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would only need to work 15 hours per week. In his 2007 book, The 4-Hour Work Week, author Tim Ferriss laid out a template for ditching the 9-5 lifestyle, working shorter hours, boosting productivity and achieving success.
Most of us still work more hours per week than the theories of either Keynes or Ferriss suggest. But even without a radical overhaul of working patterns by an employer, there’s certainly scope to cut some hours out of the working week by changing the way we work.
Take email, for example. Research by technology firm Adobe suggests that people spend six hours a day on email (across both personal and professional accounts). Add in all the pointless meetings that take place in many work environments, the interruptions from colleagues, the fire-fighting that most people face at work as unexpected tasks crop up, distractions from social media and so on. There’s little question that even the busiest among us could use our time more effectively.
Working smarter, not longer
In an article published by the Harvard Business Review last December, Steve Glaveski, an author and co-founder of an Australian start-up accelerator, put forward his case for a shorter working day, with more time spent focused on high-value tasks.
He conducted a two-week, six-hour workday experiment with his team at Collective Campus, an innovation accelerator based in Melbourne, Australia. “The shorter workday forced the team to prioritise effectively, limit interruptions and operate at a much more deliberate level for the first few hours of the day. The team maintained, and in some cases increased, its quantity and quality of work, with people reporting an improved mental state and that they had more time for rest, family, friends and other endeavours,” Glaveski wrote.
He posted about his experiment on LinkedIn and met with some resistance, with some respondents saying they’d struggle to complete all their tasks in six hours. The key, according to Glaveski, is prioritising. “About 20% of your tasks will create about 80% of the value, so it’s about focusing on those high-value tasks,” he said.
In her 2016 Ted Talk, author and speaker Laura Vanderkam also pointed to the importance of prioritisation when it comes to finding extra time and achieving a better work-life balance. She gave an example of a busy person who faces an unexpected broken water heater and needs to deal with plumbers, cleaners and so on – a task that ultimately takes seven hours out of the person’s week.
“When she had to find seven hours because there is water all over her basement, she found seven hours. And what this shows us is that time is highly elastic,” Vanderkam said. “We cannot make more time, but time will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put into it. And so the key to time management is treating our priorities as the equivalent of that broken water heater.”
According to Glaveski, managers should prioritise high-value tasks and reduce the time their team spends on tasks that don’t add value. This could be something as simple as halving the time allocated for regular team meetings to keep them to the point and focused.
He also suggests that a shorter working day requires managers to set more realistic expectations for team members. “Make it okay for employees to not be in a hyper-responsive state and schedule uninterrupted time to get into a state of flow,” he wrote. “Similarly, make it not okay to be interrupting people on a whim. My team has a simple rule; if a team member has their headphones in, you are not to disturb them unless it absolutely, positively can’t wait.”
Maybe your company is exploring the possibility of a shorter working week; maybe it’s not. Regardless, as a manager, you should be looking for ways to build a more empowered and productive team. And giving them the gift of time is key to that.
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