Not all time is created equal.
This reality is the problem with conventional time-motion productivity analysis. Perhaps in the 20th century Industrial Age of the assembly line manufacturing plant and paperwork factories and even a simpler, more routine home life, hours were more consistent. But the hour one spends getting married, watching a child win their first sports game or watching your favourite team in an international competition is not the same as 60 minutes sitting in traffic, sitting in a routine meeting or ploughing through administrative chores.
In a truly ‘free market’ of hours, staff and employers would have the ability to trade hours according to their value. A staffer might trade 2 hours of conventional work for 1 hour off to watch the World Cup. A company might trade 2 hours of conventional work for 1 hour of crisis handling on the weekend. In fact, the employer sort of has this kind of ‘marketplace’ in wage workplace where they can pay time-and-a-half and double-time for highly valued time periods.
Unfortunately, most workers usually do not have a corresponding ability to bid for time off. The problem is more difficult with exempt workers. They are paid a fixed salary and can be almost an implicit assumption that ‘all time’ is the company’s time (depending on the culture).
While the grand spectacle of the World Cup has given rise to a bunch of reports of ‘lost productivity’ fear mongering amongst the chattering fourth estate. “World Cup Could Cost UK £4 Billion” Most of these attention grabbing articles are based on out-dated logic that an hour is an hour. That people will find ways to watch the games, the games are during conventional work hours, ergo time is lost and time is money so money is lost.
More enlightened and innovative companies are using the World Cup to introduce some special work practices and bonuses to its workers like Asda and Screwfix. One of Microsoft’s leading partners and winner of the UK Best Place to Work 2010, Softcat, is showing how it is done by hosting World Cup viewing parties in their offices. No one is skiving off work today at Softcat! (and probably hardly ever do with that kind of enlightened approach).
Businesses should be looking at the World Cup as the least expensive staff morale opportunity to come along. Because fans will highly value their time watching the games above all else, they will value the hour given to them much more than the hour of elapsed clock time actually costs the company.
A classic win-win. Just like the England-USA 1-1 result for me as a UK-USA dual citizen. Perfect.
When you start to talk to people about Dynamic Work, people tend to jump to thinking about it as either ‘home working’ or maybe ‘flexi-time’ which are relatively familiar concepts. But actually, those examples only illustrate 2 of the 4 ‘Flexibility’ dimensions to Dynamic Work, namely Geography and Time. The other two – Role and Commercials are less familiar. The Wall Street Journal’s recent piece on ‘Furlough Fridays’ is a great example of Commercial (ie. terms of remuneration and reward) flexibility that can be a win-win for staff and organisations alike.
“This is ‘Furlough Friday’ and it's becoming a staple around the country as state governments force workers to take a weekly day off—usually Friday—to help bridge budget gaps. The loss of a day's work, and as much as 15% of a worker's pay, is forcing families to tighten their belts. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has put state workers on Friday furloughs since February 2009 and most furloughs are expected to persist as long as July.”
“Friday furloughs are producing an unexpected dividend for many of these workers: Marketers have discovered them. The Boreal ski area near Lake Tahoe offers a ‘Frickin' Friday’ $15 ticket for furloughed California employees; the normal adult lift price is $47. Don Hutchens, a state highway contractor, said it cost only $30 for him and his wife to snowboard all day while their young son and a friend did so for free. ‘It's the best deal in town,’ said a smiling Mr. Hutchens, as he toted his board to the parking lot. ‘You can't beat it.’ “
The danger with ‘Furlough Fridays’ is that when combined with Friday becoming a day of choice for ‘Work From Home’, bosses (and staff themselves) could confuse those with the day truly off and those who are supposed to be getting in productive work. Already many bosses consider ‘Work From Home’ Fridays as ‘Shirk From Home’ and lots of people on the ski slopes could mistakenly reinforce that perception.
A recent poll in the UK by SimplyHired showed that more staff wanted ‘work/life balance’ (36%) over a ‘competitive salary’ (31%). Also, the #1 vote getter was a ‘a job they love’ at 81% while a ‘pay raise or promotion’ only garnered 10%. The findings reinforce the business benefits of Dynamic Working in containing payroll costs while keeping staff productive and happy by introducing new ways of working that make their jobs more satisfying and flexible.
A week ago I attended the Women In Technology event ‘The Business Value of Social Media’ to see my friend Eileen Brown speak on exploiting social media. Women In Technology have a strong interest in both family-friendly work practices as well as knowledge economy trends. As a bonus, Euan Semple also spoke covering a range of business benefits to social media. The highlight of the evening for me was the quote on his slide by Peter Drucker…
“In the knowledge economy everyone is a volunteer, but we have trained our managers to manage conscripts.”
This insight gets at the heart of Dynamic Work and its productivity benefits. Many companies I speak recoil at the thought of more flexible work practices because they look at their workforce through the lens that everyone is a conscript. They think that as long as you keep and eye on everyone’s activity and crack the whip, the people should feel lucky to have a job and everything will go smoothly.
What that naive presumption misses is how much variation in work output and quality one can manifest in a knowledge worker role without a sign. In short, the unmotivated knowledge workers can hit your business where the marks won’t show. If you someone digging ditches or hammering rivets, then it is quite obvious when a slacker is not throwing dirt or cracking a girder. But it you are processing information, creating content, using systems, solving problems, writing code, then the most observant manager in the world can’t really tell the difference between a diligent worker beavering away from an indolent daydreamer staring blankly at their screen.
And for the more proactively unproductive, there are tools and technologies to help them be even more delinquent. My favourite is CBS Sport’s March Madness’ ‘Boss Button’.
The issue is sort of the converse of the ‘Quality Time’ which is about creating the Dynamic Work environment which does maximise the true productivity. ‘Boss Button’ is about the futility of trying to minimise the loss of productivity through conventional methods in the knowledge economy.
One of the major areas of benefit from Dynamic Working, along with saving money and helping the environment, is boosting staff welfare. The most direct benefits involve increased satisfaction, work/life balance, and reduced time lost to commuting. All of these benefits should lead to healthier, happier workforce. As it turns out, the UK non-profit research organisation The Cochrane Collaboration recently concluded a study which validated the ‘healthier’ hypothesis with their study titled “Flexible working conditions and their effects on employee health and wellbeing” which was released last month.
“Overall, the findings tentatively suggest that giving workers more choice or control over their working patterns is likely to have positive effects. The researchers found evidence that self-scheduling of shift interventions and employee-controlled partial/early retirement improved health outcomes, including systolic blood pressure and heart rate, tiredness, mental health, sleep duration, sleep quality and alertness and self-rated health status. Improvements were also noted in well-being, such as co-workers' social support and sense of community.”
The rising costs of health care is probably the most prominent issue in American politics at the moment and concerns about the NHS here in the UK are also quite high, especially as both countries face aging populations with increasing incidence of lifestyle health problems. Dynamic Work can be a part of the solution to this intractable and costly problem.
It’s not just the businesses that pay a price for commuting with their extended carbon footprint, lost hours and energy for staff, exposure to disruption from travel delays, etc. But, obviously, the workers pay a huge price. It’s not just the idle time spent time sitting on carbon monoxide filled tarmac. But the very financial costs of ‘Transportation’ is now both the fastest growing part of the household budget and the second biggest behind only ‘Housing’. The graph above comes from the Alltop post “Consumer spending changes over 100 years” (thanks again Hugh)
Accenture and Vodafone collaborated on a report titled ‘Carbon Connections’ which looked at a range of business strategies for carbon reduction. Given Vodafone’s mobility focus, the report naturally centred on a number of distributed and remote working scenarios…
- Dematerialisation – replacing physical goods, processes or travel with ‘virtual’ alternatives, such as video-conferencing or e-commerce (online shopping):
- Mobile telepresence – connecting ‘virtual meeting rooms’ to mobile devices would allow workers to join conferences from anywhere
- Virtual office – using wireless telecommunications products means people can work remotely or from home
- Mobile delivery notifications for e-commerce – businesses can use mobile communications to contact customers for more efficient order placement and delivery.
The last three are pretty conventional and the report has lots of good material on these topics. But what really caught my fancy was the concept dubbed ‘dematerialisation’. What a great poly-syllabic buzzword for the ‘anti-neutron bomb’ approach to downsizing.
When I worked at Microsoft, some of the more cynical managers tutted some of the work-from-home practices as ‘shirk from home.’ Curiously, the sincere sentiment among the staff was that home was often the only place where quality work got done. Staff came into the office to show face and attend internal meetings which chopped up the day so only slices of time were left for the most basic transactional activity like batting back urgent emails. But everyone knew that come performance review time no one was going to get a high rating for great meeting attendance and email responding. At the heart of every job was a role that required serious thought, insight and creative output. And the consensus seemed to be that this often got done when one was able to clear a day of distractions, steer clear of the office chock full of distractions and sit down and concentrate.
This week, Dilbert author Scott Adams reflected on this creative dynamic…
“People often ask how I get into the writing frame of mind. To me, it feels like being the night watchman in a museum. My job is to make sure all the doors are locked, and the blinds are pulled, and the lights are out. As a writer, you need to shut out all of the distractions from your other senses. I make sure I'm not hungry, tired, uncomfortable, or listening to anything. Then, like the night watchman, I go room by room with my flashlight until something scares me, surprises me, or makes me laugh. I have to feel something. And when I do, that's the part I keep. Then I wrap up the inspiring words in ordinary words, to form sentences. That part is more craft than art. Writers tend to work early in the morning, or late at night, when brains are naturally able to focus deeply on one thought. In the middle of the day, distractions are unavoidable. I wonder if anything worthwhile has ever been written in the afternoon.”
I shared this reflection with friend and creativity guru Hugh MacLeod and he concurred with the sentiment completely. His comment on Adams’ insight was, “I know this one…. Explains why Hemingway always got sloshed in the afternoons…”
Dynamic Work is a way for staff to align the right work environment with the work at hand. For most roles in modern business, this work is quite diverse and a conventional one-size-fits-all office space simply can’t serve all needs best.
I was describing the concepts behind ‘Dynamic Work’ at an event last week and one of the attendees described it as an ‘anti-neutron bomb.’
The ‘neutron bomb’ was a concept floated in the seventies as a military weapon which killed people, but left buildings and structures standing. The term was quickly characterised as a paragon of the inhumanity of war and mankind’s values. The term was most prominently popularised applied to ‘Jack Welch’ whose aggressive manpower reductions and layoffs led to the nickname ‘Neutron Jack’.
By contrast, ‘Dynamic Work’ gets rid of buildings and structures and leaves the people. As my friend Lindsay Hamilton described, ‘you help companies layoff building instead of people.’
‘People-friendly’ downsizing if you will. Just the ticket for a difficult economic times where production often needs to be scaled back, but unemployment is already enough of a problem and one we don’t want to aggravate further. I guess if Jack Welch’s moniker was ‘Neutron Jack’, then my aspiration would be to earn the name ‘Anti-Neutron Bruce’ (curiously, the ‘anti-neutron’ particle was discovered by a guy named ‘Bruce’).
Dynamic Work saves economic, ecological as well as social costs, and one dimension of those savings in two areas (economic, social) are the health benefits to flexible working.
The Times covered a study on this topic with a number of personal profiles as illustrations.
“For the first time, our survey has analysed the effects of the daily commute on people’s overall feelings of wellbeing. The results are clear. The longer people spend travelling to and from work, the more their health appears to suffer. In previous years, we have looked at the impact of overtime, but travel times have almost identical effects on work-life balance. At least when employees work long hours, the boss might notice and it is a sign that they are stimulated by their job and regard it as an important part of their life. But endless hours commuting have only a negative effect.”
“The figures are stark: for every two hours that people spend travelling each week, the result for questions on wellbeing goes down by 1.2% on average. People who spend up to two hours a week travelling have an average wellbeing score of 65.4%. For those who spend more than 14 hours a week on the road or in trains, the wellbeing score is just 57.4%. Dr Pete Bradon, director of research at Best Companies Ltd, says that the similarities between the ill effects of overtime and commuting are astonishing. ‘The things most affected by travel time – health, pressure, stress and work-life balance – are exactly the same as with overtime. But there is a compensation with overtime. People say their work is more stimulating, and they gain experience. That all makes sense. The downside of travel is that you don’t get any positive benefits. If your boss sees you doing an extra three hours in the office, he has a great opinion of you but if you drive for three hours a day, he may just think you are an idiot.”
One of the companies profiled was Microsoft UK speaking with my former colleague Theresa McHenry…
“The figures suggest that flexibility about home working is a solution to the problem of commuting. When people can work one day a week from their “home office”, personal growth scores rise by 13.7%, people feel better about their company (up 12.4%) and about the fair deal they are getting (a rise of 11.7%). Reading-based Microsoft UK has 92% of staff doing up to 60% of work from home. Theresa McHenry, who works in training and development, spent 15 years commuting in and out of London. Now she appreciates the chance to work from home. ‘It is the overcrowding and unreliability of trains and Tubes. In the car, you can choose when to leave home, and Microsoft is completely flexible about when you come and go. I work from home one day a week for my own health, but I do use my hour-long drive to and from Reading to prepare and decompress. You can’t do that on a train when you have an inch of personal space.’ “