Thinking Time – An Under-Rated Commodity?

Advances in digital technology mean that many managers are expected to be available 24/7, but how useful is this expectation in a leadership context? Thinking time is an underrated commodity today – but it’s one that managers should fight for, both for themselves and for their team.

Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review showed that 62% of high-earning individuals work more than 50 hours a week, 35% work more than 60 hours a week and 10% work for more than 80 hours a week. This culture, which expects people to be so busy that their diary is always full, implies that those people who have “spare” time must be neglecting their work.

There is, however, plenty of evidence that these long hours don’t actually lead to improved productivity.

Early experiments on productivity and the hours people work go back to the 1st world war, when it was clearly shown that the productivity levels of workers in a munitions factory was no higher when they worked for 70-hours a week than when they worked for just 56 hours a week.

In these same experiments having a rest day (in this case on a Sunday) was also shown to be important for high productivity. Those workers who worked for 48 hours without a complete day off each week were much less productive than those who worked for 48 hours with a rest day.

These experiments were undertaken in an industrial company, where time does equate directly to productivity. If the munitions worker stepped away from their station for lunch, the company lost an hour’s worth of munitions being put into boxes. But in the modern business world many of us work in the service sector, or in a support or managerial role. In these types of jobs how busy you are and how many hours you do does not equate to your value.

In these cases our true value to the company lies in how many problems we can solve, how many good ideas we can generate and how much progress we can make (or can enable other people to make) in order to move the company towards its goals.

Yet almost everything about the way the modern business culture operates is to keep people so busy that it is impossible for them to be truly valuable. People sit at their desks opening and closing emails as if they are packing boxes or attending meetings which contribute nothing to the company.

Forward-thinking organisations are now starting to experiment with revolutionary ideas about how to release as much brainpower as possible. After all, people are at their most creative when they ae walking and talking with their colleagues, not sitting in their cubicle. Problems get solved at their root cause when there is time to mull them over with cup of coffee, not in a stuffy meeting room during the 10 minutes allocated to a topic in an over-packed agenda.

Such enlightened organisations are kicking back against the long hours culture, and introducing agile working – effectively enabling people to work when they need to and to sit with whomever they need to sit with. Their focus is on a results-only environment, where what matters is whether people deliver the outcome required not how long they spend at work - and they are training their managers to support this approach.