The WHAT not the when or where of work

CIPD/ACAS have produced a report on the workplace trends for 2015  (summarised in this handy infographic). There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, but one point that stood out to me straightaway  is their advice that employers should:

focus on output rather than ‘when’ and ‘where’

That is, why not make the work itself the focus of management, and not the hours put in or the location?

Many managers assume that if we allow workers to choose their own hours, people would slack off and do the minimum possible. But I don’t believe that is true. If workers are given responsibility to choose their own start and finish times – rather than being kept to an one-size-fits-all 9 to 5 rule – they will end up working regular hours. People like regularity, but they don’t necessary like being told where to be or when. If managers stopped treating work like school and allowed employees the flexibility to work how and where suits them best, those employees would quite likely respond by doing just that: their best work.

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones wrote in the Harvard Business Review in May 2013 on ‘Creating the Best Workplace on Earth‘ and one of their 6 imperatives was that people aren’t hindered by ‘stupid rules’. In many jobs established working hours are a necessary thing, but we could say that in a lot of office work, and many jobs in a city like London, the conventional workplace rules around attendance are quite outdated now we have the means to work anywhere and anytime.

Focusing on ‘output’ is how a company like Netflix can allow their people to take as much holiday as they like, or Automattic’s staff to work wherever they want.

If we could move away from the ‘when’ and ‘where’ of work we could do a lot more than satisfy workers. We could spread out commuting patterns and do away with crazy rush hours in cities where transport infrastructure is creaking under the strain of commuters moving altogether twice a day. We could do away with a long hours culture based on presenteeism in the workplace, and provide more time for workers to spend with their families or communities.



The end of head office is nigh?

Empty desk syndrome

Empty desk syndrome

During my summer holiday I spent a few weeks travelling around the Pacific Northwest. Something that struck me on that trip was the sheer number of Macbook-sporting workers inside every Starbucks I went into. There must have been at least 5 in each one (other makes of laptops were also represented). They were all hard at work side-by-side wearing headphones and not interacting in any way with each other. It’s a phenomenon cropping up in many urban centres, and some companies actually build their organisational structure around this kind of distributed working culture.

Given the choice between a permanent workstation and a place to perch outside with better hot drinks, many of us would probably prefer a bit of both. Some combination of working in isolation so we can concentrate, but with other people around so we don’t go stir crazy on our own. We are social creatures after all, but we don’t like to be confined to a desk. And a lot of us like coffee.

But is the future of work really hammering away at a laptop in a coffee shop? Is the end of head office culture really on its way?

Much has been made of Marisa Meyer’s decision to bring all Yahoo employees back into head office as sounding the death-knell for remote working. But the truth is that we need both to do good work: both face-time with our co-workers for (big buzz word) collaboration, and time spent outside the workplace for innovation and to learn from what’s going on elsewhere. In this ever inter-connected world, we should be encouraging workers to get out of the workplace and find out what is actually going on in other places, or with our customers, or with other organisations in our industry, not just plugged into a desktop all day sending emails backwards and forwards. Who here hasn’t had some of their best ideas whilst they were NOT at work? Now we have technological advances that mean we can work anywhere, why would we confine ourselves to one place?

 “I thought of that while riding my bicycle.”― Albert Einstein

But if you’re not lucky enough to work for an enlightened company that allows you not to be confined to one place all the time, you can still make some small changes to bring some respite and inspiration into the monotony of the working day. If you’re in the kind of job where you need to think creatively, a bit of switching off can be great. Plugging away endlessly at something is not necessarily good for you and can lead to cognitive drain, and getting the mix right between boss-pleasing desk-time and time outside to bring in new ideas is part of the modern worker’s task. Get up, organise the post, go to a seminar with a free breakfast buffet, do something mundane with a different part of your brain and then come back to what you’re working on – you’ll find you’ve got a different perspective or a better answer than before.

“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” – Agatha Christie

Suddenly Innocent’s ironing board has an important dual role in the office as a source of innovation!

I believe that the best organisations are those who allow their workers to work the way that they want, and where they can be most productive, and that requires giving them some autonomy over how work is organised. I’m still waiting for the day when I turn up at the office only to be told to ‘go home and get on with some work’. In the mean time I’m going to be breaking up my day and re-igniting my cognitive abilities by doing the tea run.

Working hard = working all the time?

The ever-elusive 'balance'. How do we get it?

The ever-elusive ‘balance’. How do we get it?

The ongoing debate around work-life balance, working unsociable hours, and long hours cultures really concerns me. Alexandra Levit, (author and speaker on business and the workplace) cites ‘worker burnout’ as a trend we’ll see increasing over the next 20 years. Private health insurer BUPA, perhaps unsurprisingly, warn companies to incorporate mental health into wellbeing programs. I’m sure we will start to see more cases brought against employers in the future involving mental health issues and workers seeking time off or compensation due to stress-related burnout.

But rather than wait for burnout cases to arise, or for ourselves to be affected, we should be putting our efforts into seeking a better balance now.

In many organisations it still seems purely down to the individual employee to find their own balance. We continually hear about working mothers trying to impossibly ‘have it all’ (i.e. both a career and a family), but this is arguably a problem for most of the working population as we all try to balance staying healthy, keeping up regular exercise, having a social life and outside interests, keeping up with family and friends, all alongside the demands of our careers. How can we ‘push back’ against all the claims on our time, when we are also being told to ‘lean in’ and give our careers everything we’ve got in order to be successful?

Why do we work long hours?

In some industries long hours seem to be accepted as part of the culture, and many are resigned to working all hours of the day or sending emails at unsociable hours in order to maintain visibility and show they are committed. This could be down to workers trying to appear extra productive in order to be favoured (‘superhero’ complex), or simply a result of pressure to fit in and be a ‘team player’.

Or is this in fact a facet of the recent recession and stemming from feelings of job insecurity? Do we hoard work in order to appear indispensable and safeguard our careers? Long hours could be an unhealthy extension of the ‘presenteeism’ that was reported since the start of the recession, or quite simply down to organisations not taking on enough staff.

Long hours cultures could also be down to poor leadership modelling bad behaviours or expecting staff to be available at all hours of the day (and night). I recently read an interview with a CEO of a large international organisation who said that he couldn’t totally disengage from work while he was on holiday as he had to be available for particular events that were going on. Was there no one for him to delegate to during those few weeks in the year? What is the impact of him being available all the time – does it raise the expectation that other staff will need to do the same?

Many of us find it hard to say no to our bosses and worry about what would happen if we made it clear that we have a life outside work. But at the same time most of us would be far more productive at work if we could satisfy the demands of our lives outside.

Technology is often cited as a cause of long hours, and it can be difficult to switch off from the gadgets that are supposed to make our working lives easier. But if this is the case then we have got to learn to get on top of it, as the smartphones and ever-expanding connectivity are not going to go away. We need technology to work for us, not take over our lives.

Or do we simply work all the time because we enjoy it? Arguably, the more engaged we are with our work the more hours we put in. Even so, we all need to switch off at some point to avoid cognitive drain.

Do we honestly admit that there is a problem?

It’s still something of a taboo to talk about mental health issues in the workplace. When I’ve raised it in discussions over long hours I’ve been looked at as if I’m talking a foreign language. ‘Resilience’ is often used as a euphemism for not showing any signs of weakness, but then we’re back at the ‘superhero’ mentality of trying too hard to satisfy our boss’s demands on our time. The recent Bank of America case is an extreme one, but it should be a wake-up call to organisations not taking responsibility for monitoring working hours.

However, the more hours we put in it’s not a given that we are achieving any more. And more hours worked for the same output is not a sign of ‘commitment’, it is simply unproductive and wasteful. Do we really need a 60-hour week now to do a ‘full-time’ job?

We also need to think about the return we get on the hours we put in. If we honestly add up the number of hours in a week that we are effectively ‘at work’ (either in the workplace, or picking up emails outside), and then from that work out our average hourly rate of pay I’m sure many of us would be feeling rather under-paid!

The fact is that cumulative stress is a reality, and even though organisations don’t like to talk about burnout it definitely happens. Organisations shouldn’t wait until their star performer is unable to perform, or until they’re fighting a disability claim. We should be talking about wellbeing at the outset.

What will it take to get a better balance?

Companies dish out tablets, smartphones and laptops, and many managers expect their workers to be available at the drop of a hat, but at some point they may be forced via case law to take responsibility for monitoring hours put in.

Senior executives should be modelling and rewarding better behaviours in their staff that result in a happier, healthier, more productive and stable workforce. I always counsel managers to be very careful rewarding their staff for putting in extra hours. And it’s not just to avoid a stress claim in the future, it’s to give that staff member a chance to have a life outside work and not buckle under pressure.

In the meantime, I think what’s needed is for us all to examine our own motivations around work to keep the long hours in check. What gives us satisfaction in our work? We need to guard against the performance anxiety that is extending outside our working hours and learn when ‘good enough’ is actually good enough. If we pride ourselves too much on our work achievements it can be very difficult to switch off, and it’s all too easy now to get sucked back in via the endlessly pinging noise of the Blackberry or iPad.

Give yourself a break, and put that smartphone in a drawer when you get home. Hold your own and take a proper holiday. If your manager grumbles, comfort yourself in the knowledge that he’d complain more if you simply keeled over through stress.

Working Less – Keynes’s Grandchildren

A museum in Hanoi - getting their priorities right?

Sign outside a (closed) museum I tried to visit in Hanoi – getting their priorities right?

What has happened to the ‘leisure society’ that J M Keynes predicted back in 1930? In his essay ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, Keynes predicted that on achieving greater economic improvement we would have a whole new attitude to wealth, resulting in less time spent on economic pursuits, and therefore a shorter working week and much greater leisure and freedom.

We’re  17 years away from that 100-year date, and right now it seems that Keynes was far off the mark. There hasn’t come a time when people have decided their material needs have been satisfied to the extent that they can work less and devote their energies to non-economic pursuits. We are far from the 15-hour working week that Keynes advocated. According to the 2010 CIPD report Working hours in the recession the number of long-hour workers in the UK has started to rise again following the loss of nearly 1 million jobs and a shift to part-time working at the start of the economic downturn. Presenteeism is increasing in the hope of workers holding onto precious jobs. And this attitude is continually espoused by those in power, or as William Hague put it a year ago: ‘There’s only one growth strategy: work hard.’ (Telegraph, 12 May 2012)

By EU standards, the UK has a high proportion of ‘long hours’ workers, and still the CBI lobbies continually for the UK to maintain its opt-out of the EU Working Time Directive (which permits a maximum 48-hour working week) in the name of greater ‘flexibility’. And the average Briton works 150 fewer hours than an American (where there is no legal or collective requirement to provide a minimum amount of annual leave) and less than Japanese and Australian workers. The long hours culture in many developed countries doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

I read a Daily Mash spoof article yesterday, ‘Everyone to live at work by 2028’, which hits on the point pretty well: “THE government has revealed new measures to help you spend all your time doing work.” The Daily Mash makes light of current issues, but they also highlight a serious point here: are workers complicit in this long hours culture? Are we in fact responsible for choosing to work long hours to keep up the promise of ever-improving living standards? As the fake office worker puts it in that article:

“Work is great but we mustn’t lose sight of the really important things, like having more expensive things than others in your social group.”

If that is the case, then why do we do it? Is it really a choice between working all hours of the day (and sometimes night) or losing our standard of living? Again, it seems up to each of us to strike our own balance and decide when enough is enough. But when will the tide turn?

More on Keynes’s ‘Economic Possibilities’:

Larry Elliott in the Guardian: Whatever happened to Keynes’ 15-hour working week?

Make Wealth History –


There’s a lot of interesting writing and research coming out now and recently about Generation Y. Ipsos Mori are publishing their research into differences in political opinions of different generations and a recent Economist report on politics among young people in the UK showed that Generation Y (or as they are also known, the Millennial Generation) are also more likely to hold liberal political views.

But there has also been discussion around inter-generational problems in the workplace, caused in many cases by clashes between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Part of this criticism stems from older workers over what they see as the ‘entitlement’ mentality of Generation Y in their attempts to transform the workplace to suit their own needs. Generation Y feel entitled to good jobs, to work that blends better with their lives outside work, to work that has meaning, and to be evaluated on performance, not presence at work.
A recent Squire Sanders LLP employment law blog argues that rather than avoiding inter-generational conflict by not recruiting such demanding younger workers there are big advantages to businesses in recruiting ‘entitled narcissists’.

They argue for diversity in the workplace in general, and diversity is steadily becoming a reality for businesses to survive, rather than simply the politically or legally correct thing to do. Diversity is particularly important in this case as what Generation Y employees demand from their workplaces is also what will place organisations well in terms of recruiting employees of all ages (flexible working, a brand to associate with, meaningful work, recognition rather than money as a reward, a career rather than a job …).

Generation Y or Millennial workers are also important for business as they represent the new generation of customers and this presents another case for their inclusion in any organisation. Brian Havig at Gyro argues that the demands and sense of entitlement of Generation Y customers represent a kind of wake-up call for businesses.

Generation Y customers will test services as they expect more from what they buy. They will also test workplaces. In short, this is another area in which employers should be working to embrace a diverse workforce. Those younger workers who wind you up because they demand more may actually be the voice in your organisation who are driving up standards. They irk older workers because they demand much more than previous generations did, and without trade union bargaining. They will form part of the evolution of the workplace: those organisations who survive may well do so because they listened to the new generation of their workforce and managed to satisfy and retain them.


see no email, hear no email, do no email
see no email, hear no email, do no email

How much separation should there be between your work and your personal life? What is a healthy balance? When should you just switch off from it all and carry on with your life?

Work is no longer a place, but a ‘state of mind’, according to a 2012 report by Forbes Insights and Gyro, a business consultancy, which examined the attitudes to work and personal life of global executives. Most of us can probably relate to this idea and are well aware of the benefits and pitfalls of technology enabling work to expand to fill all available space and time rather than being confined to the period between 9am and 5pm or the space between the office walls.

The ‘at work state of mind’ concept is important. For Gyro, this presents exciting challenges in how to market to business decision-makers who aren’t necessarily making ‘business decisions’ when we expect them to. For employers it presents other issues such as to how to measure and reward what work people are actually doing, or how to maintain a duty of care over their working time. For employees there is the constant struggle to negotiate the boundary between ‘work’ and ‘life’. Many organisations will give you a laptop and a smartphone, but it’s largely up to you as an individual to strike your own balance. I’ve had managers tell me that their staff are working ’24 hours a day’, which seems unlikely, not to mention in contravention of the Working Time Directive and rendering them hugely underpaid for the hours they’re doing. So we’ve also got issues with managers making assumptions that staff are ‘working’ when they may not necessarily be doing anything of the sort.

In the current working environment it’s not just your time that needs managing, it’s your own mindset. For some, it’s stressful to switch off from work completely. A former colleague of mine always checked her inbox on the final Sunday evening of her holiday; it helped her to relax knowing in advance what was waiting for her back in the office.  At the other extreme, I have another friend who switches to ‘holiday mode’ whenever she steps out of the office building, and she’s the one at my elbow on a regular Tuesday night in the pub saying: ‘C’mon, you’re on your holidays, you might aswell have another drink.’

In the @Work State of Mind report Rich Karlgaard from Forbes argues that the advent of smartphones and wi-fi should enable us to enjoy the freedom to pursue our leisure interests during the middle of the weekday and fit work in at other times that suit us: ‘…lose the guilt over declaring your own independence. Enjoy that freedom, and bestow it generously on your colleagues.’

This sounds fantastic and liberating, but most of us do not work for such progressive employers who would allow us the freedom to work on our ‘key deliverables’ after going on a midday 40km bike ride whilst the roads are quieter. In a lot of companies, the freedom to do something completely unrelated to work in the middle of the working day is still the hard-earned privilege of the senior executive, who’ll make you well aware that that privilege is not extended to you.

‘Freedom’ is therefore to be claimed back by employees. Otherwise known as ‘discretionary effort’, you not only choose how much ‘extra’ to put into your work when you’re at your desk, but also how much of your own time you’re going to spend ‘at work’ in your head during non-working hours. I would argue that the responsibility for managing your own mental health also lies with you; it is also important for individuals to recognise when their freedom is being curtailed by unhealthy working habits or managerial expectations.

Knowing when ‘good enough’ is good enough, and knowing when to push for better results from yourself are important skills if you’re going to get somewhere in your career and not burnout along the way. If your organisation is not bestowing freedom generously on you you will need to strike your own accord and mark out your own boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘personal’. Getting this right so that all the people who have a claim on your time are happy, including yourself, is the fine art of ‘balance’.