The paradox of organizational time

Members of organizations constantly complain that they don’t have enough time, yet managers are not focusing on ways of saving time.

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are,” Tim Kreider writes in the New York Times. “It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing.”

I’ve been working with organizations on web management issues since 1994; some things have changed a lot and some things have remained the same. One thing that has remained stubbornly the same is how management deals with knowledge worker time.

Now, if you’re a factory worker then your time is often managed down to the last second. But if you’re a knowledge worker- on a salary- you’re expected to work longer and longer hours, for sure. But once you’re seen to be slaving away putting in those long nights and longer weekends, management seems to think its job is done.

I spoke to some managers from a very large organization recently about their intranet, which everybody admitted was terrible. There were plans to create a new intranet. What did these plans involve? Buying some new technology. Yeah, they had done a few workshops and brainstorms about the design and usability, but these were essentially seen as trivial activities.

The quality of the content was going to somehow sort itself out magically once they bought this new technology, which of course would have personalization and customization. One manager said to me that an intranet was essentially impossible to manage so they weren’t going to bother.

“USA Today published a multi-year poll in 2008, to determine how people perceived time and their own use of it,” Ray Williams writes for the Financial Post. “The survey found that in each consecutive year since 1987, people reported being busier than the previous year, with 69% responding that they were either “busy,” or “very busy,” and only 8% saying they were “not very busy.””

In corporate culture today it’s sinful not to be busy. The more hours people are seen to be working the better. Thus, focusing on saving these workers time is not even on the radar of most senior managers (who themselves are working longer and longer hours). More hours equals more productivity which equals more profit. It’s the law. But is it a good law? An effective law?

“From May through October, we switch to a four-day workweek,” Jason Fried founder of software company 37signals, writes. “And not 40 hours crammed into four days, but 32 hours comfortably fit into four days. We don’t work the same amount of time, we work less.”

That’s corporate suicide, right? But Fried goes on to write that “better work gets done in four days than in five. When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.”

Being busy is no achievement. How to we break away from the culture that celebrates the cult of volume? How do we reward what people actually achieve rather than rewarding the time they are spending?

Why “busyness” doesn’t equate with productivity

The ‘Busy’ Trap by Tim Kreider

Be More Productive. Take Time Off, Jason Fried


4 responses

  1. Ryan Carson (Team Treehouse and Carsonified) and his wife tried the 4 day week back in 2006: “Once we trained ourselves to stick to the four-day work week, the benefits were absolutely amazing. It was like someone had added another Saturday to our week! On Fridays, we sleep in, fire up the coffee around 9 or 10AM and then relax around the house or head into town to a coffee shop. It really is amazing. We have more peace. More time to think. More time to enjoy life. It’s fabulous.”

  2. Bjorn

    I also had a years experience of the 4 day week, except my Friday morning was an amazing swim; the more I think about it the more I know I should go back to doing it again, especially as I now work for myself. But I think it’s getting your head around it that’s difficult, I mean when do I stop accepting new work, especially in today’s financial climate?

    Gerry refreshing post Bank Holiday weekend reading.

  3. Thanks, David.
    I know the feeling. It’s easy to become trapped into working longer and longer. I’ve done it many, many times and not with good results!

  4. Refreshing reading indeed.

    There’s a problem when you change jobs in a large organisation (which is where I spend most of my time): getting rid of your old job!

    Since April, when I acquired a new job but also ‘retained’ my old job, I’ve been doing two jobs; literally 80 hours a week squeezed into 40…or 50, and two jobs done badly, just keeping the plates spinning.

    Today, I’ve lost the old job (well, most of it), and it’s liberating - suddenly I have time to read again, and plan, and reply to colleagues with considered responses instead of knee-jerk turnarounds. It must be like dropping down to four days a week…

    By the way, Jason Fried’s ‘Re-work’: one of the best books I’ve read recently.

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