Workers want many things personally and professionally, including more ownership over their time. For leaders, this means working toward enabling team members to get more of what they want and need to get done — done — so that they can be their best and most engaged selves at work.
Workers are re-evaluating how they spend their time, according to a new study based in anthropologically informed fieldwork. How much of it do workers spend at a brick-and-mortar, at home or in general? How much of it do they spend on personal matters, self-care, with family and friends and on other non-work-related activities? The drivers of this great re-evaluation are manifold. They include the stress, worry, losses and grief experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reinforced time's status as finite, and the acceleration of remote and hybrid working models, which has underscored that certain types of work don't have to be done on-site.
"People want far more ownership of their time than organizations have previously afforded," according to the Worker Identity Research Collaboration (WIRC) report, presented in part at Women@Work 2022: Redefining the Workforce of Tomorrow. The forthcoming report examines people's thoughts and feelings about work and the role it plays in their lives and communities. The research indicates that workers "are reprioritizing how much time they devote to work" versus other areas of their lives.
Here are six questions leaders can ask themselves to discover how to work with rather than against workers' fresh outlooks on time:
1. Are we paying people for their time or something else?
Leaders should question the utility of hyper-focusing on the number of hours team members work versus recognizing the overall value they provide. Sure, workers want to be paid for their time in the workplace, but how workers add value to organizations goes beyond a time clock, says Martha Bird, chief business anthropologist, ADP, and WIRC co-author. People contribute their expertise, leadership skills, enthusiasm, grit, creativity and curiosity. In addition to time, these contributions should be recognized as areas of compensation, which time for labor in the traditional sense doesn't account for very well.
"Reducing the value of one's output to time alone reduces human effort to a set of artificial metrics. Putting in time does not necessarily equate to high value. Working more is not necessarily more productive," Bird says. "Leaders should be mindful of individuals' overall contributions to projects. What do individuals add beyond the added-up hours in a day? If a person can complete what they have been asked to complete in less time, does it make sense to have them sit around in a brick-and-mortar for the remainder of the day?"
2. Are end products better measures of value?
Given the rise of knowledge work, the utility of both time and end products as measures of value should be an increasingly relevant consideration for organizations. Measuring team members' value through time alone prioritizes their work hours. It focuses on time for time's sake. Bird says that end products, or the tangible and intangible things workers create that generate business, tend to be better measures of value, regardless of how long team members take to produce them.
"The organizing principle behind the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday, which lets leaders monitor workers' activities, comings and goings en masse, has obvious practical utility," Bird says. "Still, it's important not to confuse time spent with ultimate value. Some people do things quickly, others more slowly, and both could produce equally poor or equally exceptional work."
3. What do we do or require that takes up people's time?
Sometimes, leaders engage in activities and communicate expectations that downplay the importance of team members' time, particularly their off time. The best leaders, Bird says, not only respect people's time but communicate and model time boundaries. Examples include not hosting late-afternoon meetings on Fridays, not expecting team members who have agreed to work weekdays to work weekends and not sending unnecessary emails, texts or calling team members for non-urgent reasons during off time. Instead, leaders should encourage team members to engage in personally meaningful activities outside of work.
"The best leaders understand that family time, private time and leisure time are deeply valued and integral to a person's overall well-being and how they show up at work," Bird says. "Leaders are not parents, and team members are not children. They are peers, presumably working toward shared goals. A sure way to alienate your employees is to assert a command-and-control management style, including micromanaging how work gets done. Nothing says 'distrust' like feeling like you aren't trusted."
4. Why do we do things this way?
Doing things the way they've always been done is a predictable and, for some, comforting management style. Like the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," the statement, "This is the way we've always done it," can communicate that change, nuance, innovation, process improvements and progress are neither valued nor welcomed. Bird says it's perfectly normal to prefer the familiar; it's human nature, she adds, to want to maintain the status quo. While leaders shouldn't beat themselves up about upholding certain status-quo practices in the past, they should keep the following in mind: Time-wise, what might have worked in the past may not work now or later.
"The danger is not recognizing and acting on the need to adapt our practices. Just as gravitating toward the familiar is human nature, so, too, is adapting," Bird says. "Teams comprise individuals with unique pulls and pressures on their time. While seemingly able to reduce endless tailoring on an employee-by-employee basis, one-size-fits-all approaches run the risk of downplaying the importance of people's unique circumstances and lives."
"The pandemic," Bird adds, "has taught many of us that time is precious. We want to have more ownership over how we use this finite resource. And we want our leaders to acknowledge the importance of our time and do so by setting policies we can either accept or reject."
5. Are there ways to give people more control over when they work?
Leaders have various options for giving employees more ownership over their time. For example, some people work better in the morning, while others work better later in the day. Some have familial responsibilities that make midday meetings challenging to attend, whereas some prefer midday meetings. Shift-dependent industries increase the complexity of navigating such preferences. Still, using a one-size-fits-all approach to when work gets done is challenging to maintain when accounting for a diverse workforce with diverse wants and needs.
"Flexibility is a popular concept in the world of work these days," Bird says. "For workers newly untethered from a physical place of work, the realization that the workday can be more fluid has taken root. This fluidity does not necessarily mean that work isn't getting done. It does mean, however, that workers can now optimize their schedules to fit other areas of their lives."
"While it might strike some as a free-for-all," Bird adds, "it does not have to be chaotic. Managers can set ground rules for the team along with clear expectations for attending meetings, project due dates and responsiveness while still leaving room for individual decision-making about when work gets done. Trust in both directions is key."
6. Have we asked team members if there is a better approach?
Leaders don't have to guess how team members prefer to use and manage their time. Bird encourages leaders to reflect on how they like to get work done and to use that reflection to devise questions about their team members' preferences while also remaining open to their ideas, which may be new or different. Hearing from team members and being open-minded about their individual preferences, rather than imposing an approach that works for only a majority or minority of employees, can help leaders create person-first work arrangements for their teams.
"Discuss the range of possible practices and policies with the whole team," Bird says. "Through conversation and respectful listening, people will be more likely to understand and act on the terms of engagement for the group."
Workers want many things personally and professionally, including more ownership over their time. The pandemic and various sociopolitical and economic events have made people realize that their time is limited now more than ever. There's no way to do everything they want in a day, year or lifetime. For leaders, this means working toward enabling team members to get more of what they want and need to get done — done — so that they can be their best and most engaged selves at work.
"People want to work, but they are reconsidering the time they are willing to devote to it and whom they will work for," Bird says. "Pandemic lockdown gave many people time to reflect on their priorities. People found new ways of getting work done well. People gained a clearer understanding of what they've been missing outside of work. Some reconnected with values they'd lost sight of. All have been changed in some way or another. There is no turning back."
Want to know more about workers' thoughts and feelings?
Replay the related Women@Work 2022 session on demand: Worker Identity Research Collaboration (WIRC): Stories from the Field
Subscribe to SPARK updatesSign up