Business managers have a huge effect on how employees spend their time. Onecomment in a meeting or quick email can drastically sway a schedule, and evenruin a weekend. But when leaders are deliberate and thoughtful with theirchoices, they can create opportunities and time for their teams to do valuablework. To master the art of making intentional choices, leaders should focus onthree things: the work environment they create,the expectations they have, and the examples they set through theirchoices and actions.
1. Treat new tools as debt. Before you add a new product, process, or platform to your company, askyourself if it’s worth it. There will always be new technologies and processesyou can adopt — an app promising better communication, a service promisingsmarter collaboration. But these products don’t always deliver. And when you’reovereager about trying shiny new things, it can hurt your team more than ithelps them. People may become bogged down incorporating a new tool into theirworkflow, or scattered while attempting to learn a new process. Of course thesethings can be useful if the timing is right and the strategy is solid, but theyalso come at a cost.
2. Block as a team. Blocking your calendar is a simple and defensible way to make time forthe work that matters. You can supercharge this tactic by agreeing to blockyour calendar as a team. When everyone in a group or department has the same“do not schedule” blocks on their calendar, it’s much easier to spend that timefocused on work.
3. Make your workplace a place forwork. Ironically, mostoffices are not great for getting work done, and open floor plans deserve most of theblame. Moving walls may not be realistic, but you can change thedefault behaviour of your team by instituting Library Rules. JasonFried, co-founder and president of 37signals and co-author of Rework, has abrilliant suggestion: Swap one default (you can talk to anyone anytime)with a different default, one that everybody already knows (act like you’rein a library).
4. Keep it small. Large teams have more overhead than small ones. Complicated projectshave more unknowns than simple ones. Long timelines encourage people to take onunnecessary work. This probably seems obvious, but my experience is that mostleaders make things bigger than they need to be. Keep teams, projects, andtimelines as small as possible.
5. Reward the right behaviors. The 21st Century workplace is full of rewards for long hours and fastresponses: compliments, promotions, and cultural badges of honor. If you wantto get better, more valuable work from your team, think about which behaviorsyou reward — even if those rewards are small and unconscious.
6. Have a contact contract. We have so many ways to keep in touch at work — writing emails, sendingchats, scheduling meetings, hopping on calls. Which form of communication isthe most appropriate, and when? You can help your team decide by having an opendiscussion about everyone’s preferences and then making guidelines that workfor the majority. Think about timeliness, thoughtfulness, interruption, andsynchronicity. The decisions you come to don’t have to be a literal contract,but they should create an understanding about when and how to communicate.
7. Don’t ask for updates. Nothing triggers anxiety like an email from the boss late in the day:“Hey, can you send me a quick update on Project Alpha?” This kind of messageappears urgent — even if it’s not — and it will likely take time for youremployee to respond. They may have to run numbers or ask collaborators forupdates. A better way to keep tabs on projects is to ask your team forsummaries. Explain to them that summaries come at the end of a project, or marka milestone, and include: the results, the lessons learned, and what needs tohappen next.
8. Be mindful of what you say,because everyone’s listening. Whenleaders make careless comments or suggestions, they can unintentionally changethe workflow of their teams. It takes great restraint as the leader not to keeplobbing ideas at everyone else. Every such idea is a pebble that’s going tocause ripples when it hits the surface. Throw enough pebbles in the pond andthe overall picture becomes as clear as mud. Leaders need to recognize theweight their words carry, and practice speaking with thoughtful intention.
9. Don’t expect consensus. Gettingeveryone to agree before moving forward with a decision can waste time ifconsensus is not realistic. In fact, a little conflict often inspires learning and innovation, especiallyon diverse, thoughtful teams. The key, then, is to collectinput from everyone, consider your options, and then make a decision based onwhat you think is best given the information you have. Be transparent with yourteam about how you made the decision — what you considered, and why — and settime aside to answer questions. People should walk away with a clearunderstanding of your choice and how it affects their work. This will save youtime later on.
10. Turn off the phone. Your decisions about how you spend your time sets the example for youremployees. As a leader, you might want them to know you’re available whenthey need you — but if being logged in and responsive at all times becomes yourdefault, it might become theirs too. Projecting this kind of presence sends themessage that it’s okay for people to interrupt you whenever you’re needed, orworse, that the company values the appearance of availability over the time andfocus needed to do great work. The solution is to create boundaries. Bestraightforward about your time, when you need to focus, and when you are free.A good option is to create “office hours” — periods when anyone can drop in orschedule time with you . These meetings will allow you to give people yourundivided attention when you’re available to do so.
11. Be thoughtful, not reactive. When leading new initiatives, take the time to thoughtfully write yourideas down and consider them. Try not to “think out loud” in meetings. Even ifyou are brainstorming with others, avoid making a decision on the spot. Giveyourself the mental space you need to feel confident that the decision you makeis the best path forward. This will save time down the road, and help your teamavoid unnecessary road blocks or last minute changes. Ask: How can I make this— product, service, or company — better right now? What are the first steps?
12. Take real breaks. Leave work early. Take a weekend getaway. Go on a long holiday. And whenyou do, tell your team you’ll be out of the office and offline. Delegate peopleto make decisions while you’re out, or defer those decisions until you comeback. Real breaks can make you a better leader, a happier person, and set thestandard that people need, and deserve, time off.
If you’ve ever wished for betterwork, greater job satisfaction, or less stress for your team, you have thepower to make those changes by rethinking the decisions you make about time.New behaviours have a funny way of becoming habits. What sounds crazy and newright now will seem normal and inevitable in a couple of years. Take theseideas as experiments you can run with, and start testing them tomorrow.
AdaptedHBR Jan 2019 Zeratsky