For somebody like me for whom time is a gift – not as extra years added to the later part of my life but right now in the form of an 8th day of the week, an extra hour every day – I’m keen to understand why time is so volatile. Why are so many people struggling to make ends meet time-wise at work?
When at Hot Spots Movement we speak to companies around the world, and again lately when we were in Australia, we hear from senior executives how stretched they are, with many requests on their time that are not to do with their ‘day job’. Of course, in a time such as this of increasingly fluid job design and project-based working, the definition of ‘day job’ is not a hard and fast one. Nevertheless, it seems that many of the requests are peripheral to people’s roles. You may ask why this is an issue – after all being useful is profoundly satisfying to most people, and contributing to the ‘greater good’ of the organisation by delivering input over and above your own projects surely is positive? It is, but not at the expense of preserving time to focus, to think, and to ponder longer-term strategic matters. When people are persistently stretched, and their time therefore is too fragmented, their productivity, creativity and wellbeing may suffer. Although a hidden cost for some time, it will eventually catch up with both the individual and the organisation.
So, what is it that is occupying the time of busy executives, and are these tasks really adding value? They seem to fall into two categories: reporting, and collaborative endeavours, such as attending meetings or reviewing others’ work.
Let’s start with reporting. One of the many great columns Lucy Kellaway wrote in The Financial Times was about why young people leave jobs. Her empirical evidence was that they lose the will to live because they were promised meaningful work, however, once on the job, they’re asked to produce reports and spreadsheets that are not being put to use. I’m not convinced this only happens to young people.
Next, collaboration. As the new and indiscriminately applied preferred working style in many organisations, there’s a tendency to over-collaborate and be too consensus-focused (or afraid of taking full accountability). Both lead to more meetings and more requests for input, where in fact one or two viewpoints would suffice. Of course, there’s a certain respect for hierarchy, and there are compliance-driven requests, but we could question more what is on our to-do list, be they legacy tasks or new tasks. And a bit tongue-in-cheek, see what happens if we don’t get around to providing our input. I’m not sure it would always even be noticed?
As companies move to designing work around projects rather than roles, I’m wondering if we should learn from freelance workers who work on discrete and time-defined projects, measured on outcome, and therefore can focus on these? Perhaps a zero-budgeting  based approach to how we spend our time may be helpful – regularly resetting the to-do list to 0. We need to be regularly asking ourselves, ‘what is it that keeps me busy, and is it really adding value?’ On that note, back to my to-do list, where the first point is to critically question the items!
 Where you have to justify what you need to spend, starting from 0 for every period, rather than assuming legacy spend requirements.
During my final year at University, students were approached by counsellors about taking lessons in mindfulness in order to help us cope with the stress of final year. Initially, I dismissed it as another one of those health fads claiming to be a panacea for all modern ills, but after hearing about the benefits from other friends, I decided to do some research. Mindfulness can be described as a way to focus one’s awareness on the present, so that you are more conscious of what you are doing in that moment. Essentially, it is a way to re-programme one’s mind to think in less stressful ways. Admittedly, as quite an anxious person, this resonated with me, and so now I try to incorporate mindfulness into my everyday life, and since starting here at Hot Spots Movement, I have been interested in how mindfulness could be transferred into my working life, and how it can help workers to be less stressed and ultimately more productive.
Over the past decade, research into mindfulness has exploded, with thousands of studies being conducted into its possible potential. The latest neuroscience studies are predominantly what transformed this practice from an ancient Buddhist concept into an exercise adopted by celebrities, businesses, politicians and the NHS. In 2007, scientists discovered that there are two different networks in our brain, two different ways we interact with the world: the default network and the direct experience network. The direct experience network is activated when you are being mindful; not thinking about the past, the future or about other people. It is argued that this way of thinking allows you to get closer to the reality of an event, making you more flexible and relaxed in the decisions you make.
Some of the world’s biggest companies such as Google, Facebook and interestingly, our Future of Work Consortium member KPMG are paying attention to these studies and are now offering mindfulness or meditation programmes as a way to make their employees happier and less stressed. For example, Chade-Meng Tan, a Google pioneer completely revolutionised Google through introducing the ground-breaking ‘Search Inside Yourself’ mindfulness programme to all employees. Perhaps this approach to wellbeing is one of the reasons why Google is consistently rated as the world’s best employer. Similarly, CEO Mark Bertolini completely reshaped the culture of Aetna when he joined in 2010, drawing on his experience of mindfulness, which helped him through a time of intense depression after a life-threatening skiing incident. He introduced free yoga and meditation classes to all employees, with those participating reporting on average a 28% reduction in their stress levels and a 20% improvement in sleep quality. Since Bertolini took over as CEO, Aetna’s stock increased threefold. The New York Times wrote an interesting article on this case study, finding that Aetna’s employees each gained an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year.
Another motivation behind introducing mindfulness into the workplace has been the immense pressure that workers are under today. According to the City Mental Health Alliance, 50% of long-term absences are accounted for by such stress, accumulating to 70 million sick days. More poignantly for employers, stress causes losses of £26 billion a year for the UK alone, and so it is no surprise that the leading innovative businesses have embraced mindfulness, in the hope that it will reflect in not only employees’ wellbeing, but also in productivity levels, and ultimately in profits.
I believe that introducing mindfulness into an organisation is a step in the right direction. Research may still not be able to unequivocally say that practicing mindfulness increases productivity, however the results of neuroscience studies are impressive and the case studies such as those of Google and Aetna show it is definitely worth investing in.
If you’d like to find out more about the benefits of mindfulness at work, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
According to Harvard Psychologist, Dan Gilbert, ‘all of us are walking around with an illusion, an illusion that we have just recently become the people that we were always meant to be and will be for the rest of our lives. However, time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our identities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect. Only when we look backwards do we realise how much change happens in a decade.’[i] Our research at the Future of Work (FoW) Research Consortium is indicating that this notion of transformations is becoming increasingly tangible and pronounced for three reasons: longer working lives, greater reflexivity and new social norms.
Longer working lives: More years have been added to life expectancy in the last century than in all previous millennia of mankind. A longer life means a longer working life, with some predicting that we will be working until we are 80. In this context, a longer working life provides more productive hours, presents more opportunities to be grasped and more identities to be explored. Simply put, longer working lives present an increasing range of possible ways of living.
Greater reflexivity: We are seeing an increasing disintegration of societal traditions enabling us greater freedom to think about and construct who we want to be. According to sociologist Ulrich Beck, we now live in a ‘risk society’ where tradition has less influence and people have more choice.
New social norms: An increased acceptance of homosexuality is perhaps the best example of new social norms forming. For example, whilst 70% of people believed gay marriage was wrong in 1973 this figure went down to almost 40% by 2010. In contrast, the percentage of people who thought that there was nothing wrong with gay marriage increased from just 10% in 1973 to over 40% in 2010.[ii]
Indeed, the rise in individualisation and its resulting impact on social norms explains why people are increasingly comfortable in both expressing and accepting a wider range of identities. What all this means is that each person at a given point in time has a spectrum of many possible selves. These possible selves are future articulations of who they might be and what they might do. They represent an ideal of what they might become, what they would like to become or what they are afraid of becoming.
What are your possible future selves?
[i] Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_you_are_always_changing
[ii] Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/the-rise-of-gay-marriage-and-the- decline-of-straight-marriage-wheres-the-link/274665/
[iii] Ibarra, H. (2004). Working identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career. Harvard Business Press
by Anna Gurun, Research Manager.
How many times have you wished that there were more hours in the day? At our recent Masterclass, we explored how organisations can work with their employees to build a narrative on the future of work, and discussions on time as a resource particularly resonated with our members. Time is both a construct that contextualises our lives, and a resource that impacts the decisions we make for how to spend or save it, and therefore our happiness and well-being. So how can organisations rethink time to help improve the happiness and productivity of their employees? Here are two questions that will help you think about this in the context of your company:
- Do we really know how we spend our time?
For many professionals working in high-pressure jobs, time is status. The busier you are the more important you are. In fact, people often overestimate the number of hours they work, remembering their busiest week as typical. One study found that people estimating 75 plus hour work weeks were off, on average, by about 25 hours. To enable people to accurately assess how they are investing their time, organisations can consider new tools such as time-tracking apps that run in the background of computer operating systems. This replaces perceptions with data and could enable people to cut out activities that are taking time but adding little value. Better still, assessing an organisation’s culture to ensure that presenteeism is not an indicator of status will help people make effective decisions about when to work and for how long. This starts with leaders and line managers role modelling healthy work hours.
- Are we balancing our time horizons?
In addition to misunderstanding how we spend our time, we also make rigid divisions between the present/short-term and the future/long-term, with significant implications for decision making. A focus on the short-term can be constricting, with employees much less likely to invest in activities with delayed payoffs, such as learning. When people think short-term, they tend to view time as a scare resource and are more likely to make trade-offs, thinking about whether they should do something. Viewing the future as abstract, they put off decisions that could be beneficial in the longer term, like saving or learning. This is a problem for organisations, particularly those going through change and therefore requiring people to learn new skills and adapt behaviours. Research from the University of Stanford proposes that organisations take an elevated view of time. This involves viewing all units of time as equal. In this mosaic view of time, a day is like any other day, not more important because of its proximity to your present. This zoomed out perspective forces people to consider now and later, making the future less abstract and pulling potential opportunities into the present. 
Time is a key organisational resource, and to support employees in investing in their future learning and saving, companies must rethink time, starting with taking an elevated view.
Perhaps begin by asking yourself the questions above: ‘How accurately do I understand how I use my time? And, what is my default time orientation – short term or longer term?’ Then consider this in the context of your team. It may be the key to freeing up the most precious resource we have as individuals and organisations.
For more information contact email@example.com
 Yanofsky, D. (Oct 18, 2012), ‘Study: People claiming to work more than 70 hours a Week are totally lying, probably’, The Atlantic
 Mogilner, C. Hershfiel, H.E and Aaker, J. (2018) ‘Rethinking Time – Implications for well-being’ Consumer Pscyhology Review 1-41, 53
Blog by Emma Birchall for the Huffington Post and Hot Spots Movement
In 1932, philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled In Praise of Idleness. He was writing at a time when only the most affluent in society had the opportunity for leisure time while the poor labored away in dirty, dangerous and dull work.
Today, in developed countries the situation is quite the opposite. For the first time in history, the most skilled, highest earners in society are working the longest hours. But why is it that those who can afford the most leisure are now taking the least?
It turns out we still have much to learn from the old greats such as Russell and Keynes. Both had distinct yet complementary philosophies on the meaning of work that may help us understand why affluent knowledge workers, with above average pay cheques and already high standards of living, are slaving away to the point of burnout.
The first message is that as a society, we have had a vested interest in seeing work as virtuous. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the virtues of work were extolled by the affluent, upper classes who, according to Russell, preached “the dignity of labor [to the poor], while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.” The dignity of labor “kept adults from drink and children from mischief,” by distracting them with 15-hour work days. This ideology was reinforced by religious beliefs that the poor were far more likely to go to heaven than the rich, thus their gratification was coming, just posthumously. So what does this mean for today?
According to Keynes, despite entire populations moving into higher skill, higher paid work, “we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.” We ascribe status now to those who make valuable contributions to the success of organizations and our “busyness” has become a proxy for that level of contribution. Perhaps then, if we are to resolve the challenge of long working hours, burnout and stress, we need to remind ourselves of the meaning of work, its role in our own lives and in society as a whole. Now that we don’t need work to prevent us all from becoming delinquent on gin and to get into the afterlife, maybe we can reassess how we spend our time?
A second message from the works of the old greats is that how we spend our leisure time is also a point of contention. Both Keynes and Russell stressed the importance of leisure time in pursuing academic and creative interests. According to Russell, the small leisure class in previous centuries “cultivated the arts and discovered sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations […] without the leisure class, man would never have emerged from barbarism.”
Today, we might argue that these activities take place within institutions such as universities, businesses and NGOs. However, Russell warned that when “studies are organized […] the man who thinks of some original line of research is likely to be discouraged,” making it an inadequate substitute for real leisure time.
While our context has changed markedly since the 18th and 19th Centuries, perhaps there is still something to take from this. How can we liberate people to pursue their passions, experiment and innovate under the necessary pre-condition of “no required output”? Some companies such as Google and 3G have attempted this with their “20 percent time to play” rule, allowing employees to spend the equivalent of one day a week following up on an idea they have had on the understanding that it may come to nothing. But maybe, instead of creating rules around when and how much work time people can spend in liberated, free-thinking, we need to accept the fact that people need to be absent, disconnected and unrestricted if we want them to come up with new ideas.
In short, we need to acknowledge the value of leisure time and ensure that work does not encroach. Likewise, we need to reserve energy as well as time for the pursuit of leisure or else, according to Russell, “pleasures […] become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on [… as a result of our] active energies being fully taken up with work.”
Keynes predicted that we would all be working three-hour days by now. We’ve perhaps ended up closer to Russell’s depiction of “a large percentage of the population idle, because we can dispense with their labour by making the others overwork.” We simultaneously have people working extended hours and persistent unemployment.
Could our ineffectiveness at addressing the skills mismatches behind this phenomenon be in part because we can make the skilled overwork? Both Keynes and Russell expected it to take some time to transition into a society that can accept and create value through extended leisure, without blindly pursuing more and more work as an end in itself. But perhaps it’s worth remembering Russell’s departing line: “there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”
I’m constantly struck by the cross-disciplinary learning that business can take from the arts. At our Masterclasses for the Future of Work Research Consortium, two of our most popular external speakers have been Kasper Holten and Farooq Chaudhry, formerly director of opera at the Royal Opera House and producer for English National Ballet respectively. They weren’t just popular with our audience of senior HR execs because they were something a bit different. They were popular for the meaningful and actionable takeaways they provided about leadership, discipline and innovative thinking.
This got me thinking about the lessons I’ve learned from a lifelong passion of mine, ballet. Whether watching the prima ballerinas at Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden, or sweating away at my own amateur ballet practice, here’s what I try to bring to the workplace from this disciplined art form:
Routine breeds excellence
Ballet is the living and breathing embodiment of the old adage ‘practice makes perfect’. Dancers pirouette their way to around a 100,000 hours of practice before they can even begin their professional careers. This impressive number of hours is made up of the same exercises year in-year out eventually culminating in exquisite, seemingly effortless performances. And it’s not a huge leap to apply this to business. In terms of a process or delivery style, routine practice enables us to deliver more, faster and with increased confidence.
Prioritise your time management
A good friend of mine went to ballet school, and at the age of eleven was skilfully juggling school work and punishing practice schedules, all the while maintaining a positive mindset. This ability to prioritise and manage your time alongside your positivity is crucial in our workplaces today. I see clients balancing increased workloads with less discretionary time, while being expected simultaneously to produce creative thought. This means they have to balance their focus on both hard and soft skills.
Strive for positivity and build resilience
In terms of knocks to confidence and the need to survive tough feedback, ballet is an undeniably punishing career. Even the likes of Darcey Bussell of Royal Ballet fame and Carlos Acosta, who’s meteoric rise to excellence has been well-documented, have suffered failed auditions and crippling injuries. It amazes me then to see dancers dart through the air as though they don’t have a care in the world. This is something I try to apply at work. Even with the most well-practiced routines and brilliantly prioritised schedule, we will experience times that test us. Remembering these are just moments on the much bigger picture of our careers will help us build a positive mindset and maintain resilience.
To learn about other cross-disciplinary learnings we can apply in business, contact firstname.lastname@example.org