Remote and flexible working arrangements removed a lot of the guardrails around time. While it can be freeing in one sense, you also need to find a buffer between the demands on your time for work and protecting your personal life.
“Many people derive a great deal of pride from their work, their skills, their expertise, and their career progression,” says Helen Beedham, author of The Future of Time. “But this culture we have around time is wearing people down. They’re constantly having to reinforce boundaries around when they’re available, when they’re not available, what they can deliver, and the sacrifices they’re prepared to make.”
Blurred boundaries aren’t just hurting people; they’re hurting businesses by affecting productivity, diversity and inclusion, and workforce resilience, says Beedham. “All of those things impact the bottom line,” she says. “This isn’t something to kick into the long grass because we’ve always worked this way. It’s urgent and has been for some time. Businesses that pay attention to this are the ones that are positioning themselves to succeed at the expense of competitors that are holding onto old values, attitudes, and behaviors in the workplace and will see their talent drain away.”
Is Your Organization “Time Blind”?
Beedham uses the term “time blindness” to describe a collective failure to pay attention to valuing and managing time. It’s a set of cultural norms that have evolved over decades, and it favors speed and the cult of busyness.
“If you’re seen as being very busy, rushing off to the next meeting and in demand, you’re seen as important,” says Beedham. “Time spent sitting at our desks, reflecting on incoming information, making connections, and having space for creativity to flourish—those are viewed suspiciously. Frankly, if you’re sitting at your desk and you’re not tapping away [on your keyboard], and you’re not on the phone, and your green [camera] light is not on, what exactly are you doing?”
Historically, time management has been the individual’s problem to solve, and the norms have never been explicitly discussed or challenged, says Beedham. “We’ve not talked about it in a collective sense, such as how do we invest all our time as an asset together across teams and organizations,” she says. “We’re not very good at paying attention to our habits and our assumptions.”
Left unchecked, this culture creates organizational defects that get in the way of people performing successfully. One example is vanishing boundaries.
“It wasn’t so long ago in my career that there was a commonly held view of what was the beginning and end time to the workday,” says Beedham. “Even if we still worked late and overnight, it was acknowledged to be an exception. Now, employees are frequently doing a low level of work in their nonworking time.”
As a result, employee well-being is suffering. In a study of English-speaking countries by Sapien Labs, the U.K. had the lowest mental well-being quotient, with 36% of participants reporting being stressed and struggling. In the U.S., this number was 29%.
“We have rocketing incidents of stress and mental health that’s currently costing employers 45 billion pounds (or nearly $60 billion) per year in absence, lost productivity, and turnover,” says Beedham.
A task-focused culture can also impact diversity and inclusion. When the norm is to cram as much into a day as possible, there isn’t enough time to spend on interpersonal behaviors that drive inclusion, such as listening, inquiry, empathy, and seeking different views that are perhaps not represented in the room when a decision is being made, she explains.
“Those kinds of activities are not valued and prioritized,” Beedham says. “That has a knock effect on people’s sense of cohesion, their ability to build relationships, and for people to feel they are genuinely understood and valued where they work.”
How to Correct The Issue
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for organizations. Instead, it’s highly dependent on each organization: their goals, their industry, the makeup of their workforce, the demographics, and what they’re trying to achieve. Essentially, Beedham says, we need to stop trying to fix the individual and start trying to fix the system.
“Look carefully across teams and organizations and how you invest your collective working time,” she says. “Don’t just look at one little piece of the puzzle, like working hours and flexibility. Look at governance and leadership. Look at the organizational layers and how efficient and fit-for-purpose they’re designed.” This includes looking at things like the technology your company uses, how healthy it is, and at physical and virtual environments, says Beedham. “[See] how you can make those more conducive to high-quality productive work while allowing and encouraging social bonds to flourish. And look at how people are recruited, managed, and developed, and what behaviors are rewarded.”
Ideally, change will start with someone who has sufficient authority to address the issues, such as someone on the executive leadership team, who recognizes broken time cultures within their organization. Change can also come from HR, or someone in a more people-oriented role, dealing with well-being and inclusion. Or it can be a manager who has the freedom and ambition to find better ways for their team to work together.
“It doesn’t have to start with an organization-wide initiative; it can start with a small-scale trial around a specific piece of work,” says Beedham. “See what people learn from that and expand on those efforts. Companies that understand and make efforts to improve their time culture will be the ones that attract talent from their competitors who are lagging behind.”