How to avoid falling back into the ‘old normal’

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Written by Martin Boronson and Carmel Moore on 8 October 2021 in Features
Features

Martin Boroson and Carmel Moore explore the concept of time and its impact on how we work in our 24/7 world 

During the most challenging times of this pandemic, many people longed for life to go back to normal. But after such a long period of disruption, we may not even know what normal is. And many people actually don’t want to return to life as it was.

Working from home certainly brought significant challenges. But during the pandemic, many people – or at least knowledge workers – have found new ways of working that suited them better. They enjoyed having more control over their time. They liked being more available to their family. They treasured their time outdoors, in nature. And they became more sensitive to the rhythms and tempos of time that worked for them.

Even when there is an aspiration to support hybrid working, leaders can’t leave this to chance

Ironically, being stuck in front of a screen more than ever caused some people to consciously look for more variety in time. They learned to take quality breaks, replicate the serendipity of ‘water cooler time’, or even forced themselves to switch off. Many leaders brought mindfulness into meetings, devoted time to connecting emotionally with their people, and even developed more respect for ‘down time’.

For years, leaders have been trying to get on top of time. But since the pandemic, interest in the creative solutions has soared, as if a new approach time was overdue.

But old habits die hard

The danger is that if leaders are not wide awake to the radical potential of this moment, the structures that defined working time for so long – the obsession with productivity, the myth of nine-to-five, the power structures that give some people too much control over other peoples’ time, the careless and abusive use of deadlines, the tyranny of quarterly reports – could easily send us back to the old normal. In other words, even when there is an aspiration to support hybrid working, leaders can’t leave this to chance.

If we fall back to the old normal, this will not just be a wasted opportunity: it will cause deep disquiet. Millennials demand work that is meaningful. And a recent poll of UK workers, conducted by EY as part of its 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey, found that 9 out of 10 employees want flexibility in where and when they work.

Those leaders who want to make the most of this moment should do is this: Have conversations. Good conversations. Lots of them.

Leaders need to be visible and available. They need to ask questions. They need to solicit the true diversity of ways in which people experience time and the diversity of ways people want to organise time. Leaders need to find out what worked and what didn’t work, and what people need in order to do their best work flexibly.

From this deep listening, leaders can support the creation of new agreements about time, or what we call conscious ‘time charters’. These are agreements that honour three things:  corporate goals, effective collaboration, and each individual’s personal needs around time – because time is experienced differently for each of us.

In other words, the ‘new rules of time’ will not come from the top down. People will forge them together. It will take some time to create them – there will be experimentation, setbacks, breakthroughs, and iteration.

But the reality is that for many years, time has been out of whack. Maybe we will look back on the pandemic era as the time that finally wiped out all those outdated, Industrial Era assumptions about time. When we realised that trying to be more and more efficient only makes the hamster wheel turn faster. When we stopped blaming ourselves for poor ‘time management’ and started changing the systems that manage us. When we realised that there is more creativity in how we arrange our day than we imagined. When we realised that welcoming a diverse workforce means honouring diverse needs with respect to time, and the different ways we each experience time. And that ‘nine to five’ means nothing in a world that is 24/7.

The businesses that embrace this and forge creative and healthy new time charters, with rituals and agreements that are adapted for our era, will have a competitive advantage. They will also benefit from a happy, loyal, and productive workforce, which is, of course, also a competitive advantage.

Martin Boroson and Carmel Moore are directors of the leadership consultancy The One Moment Company  

 

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