Working too hard, doing too much, being too busy, is not a new thing: it can be dated back as far as 400 BC and Socrates, quoted as saying “beware the barrenness of a busy life”.
There seems to be something inherent in the human DNA that has us think, feel and act busy. And we’re now grappling with unfettered activity-on-steroids, with our always-on internet-connected environment, turbo charged by COVID.
This is no more evident than in workplaces – and New Zealand workplaces are no exception.
Why are we relentlessly busy?
Busyness is a lot about saying YES instead of NO. We do this for a range of reasons from not having a clear idea of what we want to say YES to (no goal, plan, priority) to wanting to please, prove ourselves, or protect something related to our role or identity.
We don’t pause enough, allow time to think deeply enough, and we gravitate to easy, fun work that is quick to do and delivers a ‘tick hit’ – another thing on our list done.
Peter Drucker, one of the most widely known and influential thinkers on management, predicted it wouldn’t be technological advances that fascinated historians reflecting back on our time, but the point at which a critical mass of the world’s population had choice, totally unprepared to self-manage it.
Choice of course means ideally saying NO to a lot of things in order to focus on the most essential. However, in the extreme, humans can experience such physical and emotional pain that the NO comes out as a YES. So the to-do list gets longer.
Not paying close attention to workload is bad for people and business.
Consider the following as you start to think about the board’s role in making permanent meaningful change to the way people in the organisation you are accountable for are supported to do completely meaningful work while also having a life outside of work:
- The World Health Organization placed ‘burn-out’ on its official diseases list in 2018. With a focus on the workplace, they note the demands of the job far outweighing the rewards, recognition and times of relaxation as the cause.
- European research into productivity and wellbeing reveals the following:
- A German study (1985–1998) comparing long (two-hour) and short (40-minute) commutes with levels of happiness; the satisfaction difference was so great it would take a 40% pay rise to compensate for the longer commuters’ unhappiness.
- A study by the Institute of Psychiatry in London found persistent interruptions at work caused a 10-point drop in the IQ of the person being distracted – twice the decline found in studies on the impact of marijuana use.
- Using the time-tracking productivity app DeskTime, Draugiem Group found that 10% of employees with the highest productivity had regular breaks: 17 minutes for every 52 minutes worked.
- In 2022, businesses in New Zealand are being urged to change the way they control workload as a result of concerning statistics from research by Auckland University of Technology:
- Burnt-out workers are five times more likely to be considering resignation.
- Too many businesses respond to resignations by doubling the workload from departing staff on to a now smaller team.
- 35% of respondents had severe burn-out but only 4% put themselves in that category – many don’t know they have it.
- On cue, The Great Resignation is the impact of a chronic under-investment and lack of meaningful interest in achieving sustainable workloads for people. This recent HBR article on moral injury is a sobering reminder.
The good news
It is entirely possible to get everyone on the right side of busy most of the time – in good times and especially in times like now.
Everyone has their own experience and descriptors of how it feels to be ‘ahead of their game’ (e.g. onto it, nailing it, acing it) and when they’re not (e.g. hammered, cyclonic, on a treadmill).
Framing impacts and performance in a model can be a useful way to assess where on the spectrum people are at with an example shown below.
Where on the ladder are you, the team, the board typically operating?
Effectiveness Assessment Model
25%+ increase in productivity/ performance
90%+ non-urgent work
Mentoring, coaching and influencing others; strategically nimble; quality work; new opportunities; calm
10-20% gain in productivity/ performance
70%+ non-urgent work
Focused; proactive; owning time; space to think and plan; quality work; prioritising
Productivity/ performance restored
50% non-urgent work
Finding time (white space in calendar); deliverables understood and met; thinking before acting; shorter, fewer meetings; ‘home on time’
20%+ drop in productivity/ performance
80%+ of work urgent
Missed deadlines; email overload; extended hours; back-to-back meetings; rework; reactive
So, what’s next?
There is a great deal individuals can do to work effectively, starting with deciding they want to and then going about making changes - working from a clear desk, planning, prioritising and sizing work, efficient scheduling, taming emails, managing meetings, understanding their own urgency and that of others.
However, in the absence of organisational buy-in and commitment to this way of working and addressing more systemic issues (decision-making, ineffective technologies, old mindsets), organisational effectiveness will also be challenging to maximise.
So, not surprisingly, organisational change needs leadership – and leadership starts with the board.
As it carries out its work, the board has a moral, legal and ethical obligation to keep people safe, productive and well. This includes workloads that are realistic, ways of working that are efficient, effective and safe, and incentives to support change.
It also means board members individually and as a group leading by example.
The board exercising leadership
Good governance systems, policies, processes and behaviours – the disciplines of good governance – are easily accessible and implementable. They just need time and focus.
Systematically applied they are an antidote to inefficiency, ineffectiveness, unachievable delivery expectations and organisational burn-out.
Boards must focus on leading the development, implementation, application and regular review of good governance disciplines if they are to lead by example and make a meaningful difference to their own work and the work that is delegated by them to others to deliver.
To get started, here are three key areas a board can focus on as it plans its work and works its plan using artefacts that will be well known to many.
A board has full-time accountability for organisational performance in a very part-time capacity. Boards are also being held to account by a wider range of stakeholders (legal and moral owners) and for a wider range of deliverables (financial, environmental, social, governance) than they once were. They are expected to do that with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, following the law, and looking well ahead to see what is coming in an ever-more-uncertain world in order to appropriately adapt. Many in the not-for-profit world do this without remuneration.
To be effective a board has to get organised, become efficient, think in advance about what it wants to do, and make time to do its work.
In turn, this begins leading by example:
- Being very specific and focused about why their organisation exists (purpose), what impact it wishes to make for whom (owners/outcomes) and how it will know when it is there – outcome-based measurable strategies
- Delegating judiciously in advance of needing to – governance policies
- Providing the CEO with sufficient time, money and resources to deliver impact – aligned and highly prioritised planning, resourcing, budgeting, key performance indicators/measures
- Regularly monitoring, evaluating and reporting on progress – CEO reporting, annual planning, annual reporting to stakeholders.
Time is a precious resource and it is not renewable.
Like individuals, a board and its members will have more demands on its time than the amount available. They can do anything with that time but not everything.
Introducing constraints (prioritising, keeping to time) allows a board to balance the competing interests of time, opportunity and choice. Leveraging that with discipline during meetings, the use of smart technologies (e.g. board software) and an awareness of the value of their own and others’ time and money frees up time to be observant, ask the right questions, and elevate performance.
Again, leading by example:
- Reviewing a year in advance what the board wishes to focus on, when it will focus on it and then focusing on it when the time comes – the annual board calendar
- Assessing ahead of time what the board wishes to focus on at its meetings and focusing on that– the board agenda, CEO reporting
- Being disciplined about the value it delivers – board, individual member and Chair performance.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast (another Drucker quote) is a reminder of the importance of a board agreeing up front, and then demonstrating by example, ways of working that are fair, equitable and wellbeing based. Without it, all the planning in the world will end up under par.
This is where the board can really make a difference, leading by example:
- Embracing time as a scarce and valuable resource – for everyone
- Starting to really look at your people – have the great performers gone quiet?
- Identifying and addressing personal behaviours and habits that are barriers to achievable workloads – busy as a badge of honour; outdated rules
- Recognising and supporting changes to governance and organisational systems that free people up – unnecessary reporting, suboptimal systems/technologies, inequitable resource allocation, hierarchical decision-making
- Working out how to measure productivity and wellbeing (outside of fruit bowls) – outcomes vs outputs, wellbeing/burn-out/anxiety assessments
- Training leaders to plan, prioritise, size and schedule work effectively – for themselves and others
- Researching workplace trends – the four-day week.
Questions for boards
- Do we typically do everything we say we will do when we say we will do it?
- How high are the levels of trust in our organisation? Where do we go to see it in action?
- Is it OK for us to say NO so we can say YES to our priorities? Does the board speak with one voice on that approach?
- How do we know if our people are burning out?
- How do we know we are working effectively?
- What are we pretending not to know or see?
- What do we need to learn?
- How do we know what’s important?
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