Time management – the consequences of the ‘hamster wheel’ within our organisations

BY CHRIS DANDO

As teams are gripped by the current COVID-19 crisis and are being forced to work in a different environment, outside of their office walls, now could be the ideal time to take a step back to focus on time management, and rethink the ways in which they work, which tasks create value and which don’t, and what has crept into their roles over time that ultimately distract them from their core purpose.

In the context of the current situation, this blog explores the negative effect on employee productivity and morale as a result of the ever-prevalent need to work long hours just to remain on top of tasks and activities that we are required to perform.

A recent report by Asana (1) suggested that only 27% of the paid time of knowledge workers within our organisations is actually spent on the job that they are hired to do, with a staggering 60% being lost on non-core activities that add little to no value. And these non-core activities, often mundane in nature, are having a massive effect on the outputs of our organisations, and the well-being of our people who often feel trapped in an ever-spinning hamster wheel of simply trying to get through ever increasing work stacks.

But simply running faster in the wheel, whilst we’ve become accustomed to doing so, is simply masking the root cause and creating different yet very real problems for organisations. So, what lies beneath this problem and how can we overcome it? 

TIME MANAGEMENT – THE HAMSTER WHEEL EFFECT

The Hamster Wheel is a pernicious condition we can slip into as humans where we lose relationship to context — that is, what meaningful reason we’re doing something. This tendency comes from the Western view that our value is based on what we do or make. The Hamster Wheel is an unfulfilling lifestyle because you can never do enough to get a lasting feeling of real satisfaction from it. The wheel goes round and round and there’s no end in sight. There is not adequate reward to be good enough. That “good enough” feeling can only come from inside us (2)

To build upon this definition and bring it to life, a recent Gallup report (3) suggested that 71% of the largest group of workers, the Millennials, are either not engaged or activity disengaged within their organisations, with much of this job dissatisfaction linked to the activities that they are made to perform relative to where these employees believe they add value.

Long working hours and the need to focus on mundane tasks lead to disinterested people. Of course, there is an obvious link to poor productivity as a result, but more worrying for organisations is the potential impact on employee churn – and the costs associated with this. So how can we slow the wheel, or better still get off it?

TACTICAL MITIGATIONS

1. DESIGN YOUR DAY

We all plan each day, right? But how many of these plans are more than just a list of things to tick off by close of business? How many of these plans actually focus on where you should be spending your time, in terms of core and value-adding blocks of activity, rather than just on tasks?

At a fundamental level, we all perform roles that have their own purpose, however day-to-day we get dragged / sucked / coerced into spending lots of time performing activities that in no way relate to our purpose! As outlined above, these non-core tasks come with negative consequences, so why not take steps to design the best day for you and your role? Something so simple yet so powerful, yet often ignored. 

Indeed, having reviewed our own benchmarking data from over 40 clients where we assessed their operational effectiveness across 11 key areas of focus, we have often seen significant opportunities to create standardised structures for certain roles, and when put in place, provide immediate productivity gains (source: Reinvigoration OpAssess data). 

Designing your day doesn’t = groundhog day! It simply means you take deliberate action to focus on the most important blocks of activity for your role. It’s inherently flexible and hugely satisfying when you get through the most important work in a structured way.

2. EDUCATE & GIVE CONTROL

Who is better placed to optimise work structures than our people themselves? By educating our people on what constitutes good for their specific role and helping them to break their tasks down into core and non-core, you can empower them to take control and find their own ways to design out non-core activity. The benefits will be multiple – better outputs and healthier mindsets being just two – and I know from experience that your people will relish that newfound sense of control over their work.

STRATEGIC MITIGATIONS

So how can organisations tackle this issue strategically?

1. CREATE THE INTENT

A good starting point is to focus on our organisational values that underpin what we expect from our people, how they interact with each other, and importantly what they have the gift to say no to. Picture the impact if our people felt empowered to decline the meeting in which they feel they will contribute little to; felt able to challenge their boss when allocated a non-core task; or the employee that sets up a mailbox rule to automatically filter any cc’d email out of their inbox. These actions whilst somewhat tactical in nature can be turned into a reality if the intent is set by leaders.

2. HARNESS TECHNOLOGY

We can use technology as a friend rather than foe (that distracts us) in this situation. Switching off the ability to send an email after hours – it’s possible. Using automation tools to complete mundane tasks – why not. There are many other ways in which technology can be leveraged strategically to slow down the hamster wheel and allow our people to regain control of their time, what else may help your teams when it comes to improving time management?

IN CONCLUSION

I’m sure that everyone reading this blog will recognise the hamster wheel and its characteristics in some form and will no doubt remember occasions where you were running flat out in such a wheel. Modern day workplaces with long working hours and ever-increasing distractions can create huge stresses on our people, with the organisation subsequently suffering in many ways. Take a step back in order to take a few steps forward, really think through how your people may be running out of control in their own wheels and take action to support them in the right way.

FURTHER READING

This blog was written as a build on the article ‘Why overtime is killing your productivity’ written by Cath Everett, in The Times ‘Operational Optimisation Special Report’.

Please click here if you would like to download the full copy of this report.

Chris Dando - Reinvigoration

About Chris Dando

Chris is a Partner at Reinvigoration. He has a real passion for driving pragmatic change that resonates with those involved. You can get in touch with him directly by Email or connect on Linkedin.

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