It’s time for new workplace norms

Helen Beedham speaks, consults and leads research on how to create more inclusive, productive workplaces’.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a re-evaluation of the workplace and the way we work.  Employees are more time-poor and exhausted than ever, and businesses are losing their best talent as people are searching for more sustainable, fulfilling roles. Office refurbishments, eye-catching wellbeing programmes and pay increases might entice people in the short-term but over time these spectacularly fail to compensate for unhealthy or exclusive workplace norms that are damaging people’s health and careers, and ultimately your business’ performance.

What are these norms? They are our values, beliefs and habits around how we spend our time at work. They’ve become deeply ingrained in our organisation, particularly in knowledge-based businesses where time and people are the two most valuable assets. Here are a few examples: ‘it’s urgent’, ‘I need to respond now’, ‘busy is good, idle is bad’, ‘we need a meeting’ and ‘my time matters more than your time’.  Our working culture is characterised by speed, short-term deadlines, competition and 24/7 availability; we prioritise the urgent over the important and the task over the human.

The consequences? Rocketing levels of stress, burnout and mental ill health that are costing employers over £45 billion per year and the NHS over £22 billion per year. Sluggish national productivity despite working hours that are among the longest in Europe. Glacial progress towards diversity and inclusion goals, with a national gender pay gap that has barely budged in the past 4 years and no black Chairs, CEOs or COOs in the FTSE 100, to give just 2 examples. Business and HR leaders are waking up to the pressing need to fundamentally change our mindsets about how we spend and manage our time at work. One HR Director in financial services attributes ‘the dehumanization of the modern workplace’ to these time norms, while a FTSE 100 Group Chief Executive questions ‘how many of us as leaders really put the necessary time into managing time?’

So what does ‘better’ look like? The starting point is to recognise that we work in highly interdependent ways: how we each spend our time at work impacts our colleagues and our team members. Instead of leaving people to ‘sink or swim’ in this overwhelming, all-consuming culture of busyness, we need to adopt a more collective way of managing our time at work. This means changing working practices and behaviours and creating some healthier, more productive and inclusive norms.  These might include:

  • ‘Do a few things well’: help people to focus on a small number of longer-term strategic priorities;
  • ‘Our time is precious: minimise distractions that fragment or waste valuable working time;
  • ‘Don’t disturb ‘deep’ work’: create physical and virtual environments that help people to concentrate;
  • ‘The ‘how’ matters now’: nurture and reward positive interpersonal behaviours and how people deliver their work, not just what they deliver.
  • ‘Success is….’: define what ‘productive’ means in simple, unequivocal terms;
  • ‘Outcomes not inputs’: evaluate performance in terms of what is actually achieved (outcomes) , not the time spent on the activities (inputs);
  • ‘People aren’t machines’: be transparent and unapologetic about switching off and enjoying downtime, and advertise the benefits to people and the business;
  • ‘What are we missing?’: take time to seek different perspectives and invite dissent, instead of rushing decisions based on incomplete or one-sided data;
  • Every voice counts’: build skills in enquiry, listening, empathy and disclosure, to foster more inclusive cultures where everyone can contribute.

If you’re thinking this sounds ‘soft’ or uncommercial, think again. Only one third of British workers say they are engaged and 3 in 5 people feel lonely at work, 44% of whom attribute this to time pressure. Companies with less diverse and less engaged workforces underperform across a range of financial metrics; and a company’s reputation is worth 20%-30% of market capitalisation. Your workplace norms could be costing you talent, growth, funding and profit. As another leader says: ‘Time is the invisible frontier that must be embraced and put at the heart of all organizations that wish to thrive and build sustainably towards a better future for all’.

So what can you do? Look at your organisational and employee data, what is this telling you about your workplace norms? Ask people about their experiences of working time, time pressure and work habits. Spell out the link between these workplace norms and your business goals: find the hook that will get leaders’ attention. Change the way work gets done; your business – and your people – will thank you.

Author: Editorial Team

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