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The big question that businesses aren’t answering

Published: 11 Oct 2021

Helen Beedham is an organisational expert, speaker and author of the business book The Future of Time. She’s fascinated by how we can succeed in our careers without compromising on our work life balance.

As we mark National Work Life Week this year, we’re witnessing a massive revolution in our world of work, accelerated by new technology, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, legislative and regulatory changes, climate concerns and the pressing need to resolve social inequalities. This revolution has seen many knowledge-economy workers gain greater autonomy over where they work, with remote-working and new hybrid organisational models becoming far more common. But we’re seeing much slower change in terms of when we work; in fact, the way we view time generally at work is broken and businesses aren’t addressing this.

The problem is we massively undervalue working time.  We have long-established cultural norms around time and time management: our time culture is typically characterised by short-termism, speed, volume and bureaucracy. Added to that, we’re not good at noticing, acknowledging and debating our combined habits and choices about how we’re all spending our time at work.  Working time is characterised by overwork, presenteeism, urgency and short-termism. Whilst we might all (privately or publicly) acknowledge these failings, we’re guilty of sticking with the status quo because it feels easier than tackling these long-entrenched, cross-sectoral ways of working.

The Future of Time

In The Future of Time: how ‘re-working time can help you boost productivity, diversity and wellbeing, I tackle head on the BIG question that knowledge-economy businesses should be answering for themselves, namely: what is the impact to society as a whole, to increasing levels of inequality, and to business profitability and productivity, when knowledge workers are ‘subsidising’ their paid hours with unpaid hours?

Jane van Zyl, Chief Executive of Working Families, explains their mission to bring about more constructive, rewarding and sustainable working norms:

‘Working Families, the charity I lead, has been involved in a quest to deliver ‘work-life balance’ for 40 years. Starting from a kitchen table in Clapham, we empower working parents and carers, support employers and use those views – what we know is not working and what we know is possible – to drive positive policy change.  In The Future of Time, Helen references our campaigns and reflects what our research tells us: “Many of us work more hours than we are contracted or paid for. More than 5 million UK workers put in a total of 2 billion unpaid hours’ work in 2018, an average of 7.5 hours per week per person. Those in managerial and professional occupations tend to have more opportunities to work flexibly, but also work longer hours overall.”’

This issue extends beyond the knowledge economy and is arguably worse in place-based and more manual jobs, where autonomy and flexibility over working time are rarely offered. In sectors such as care, Jane points out ‘there is a major problem with the level of pay and lack of access to hours that many employees and workers experience. Statistics comparing what is required for a family of 4 to live a reasonable life and what the average family of 4 is earning with both parents working full-time are starkly different.’

‘under-employment persists too’

Yes despite our overwork and long hours culture, under-employment persists too. In my research, I drew on the Taylor Review of modern working practices which confirmed that the number of people already in work who want more hours ‘remain[s] higher than … during the most recent recession, despite some improvements since 2012. This under-employment represents spare capacity in the labour market and indicates that a number of people are not likely to be working in the way that best suits them.’

Creating models that benefit everyone

Better models of organising and remunerating work do exist – models that benefit the business, its customers and the bottom line as much as the workers. In The Future of Time, I propose four critical areas for leaders to focus on, not just in the knowledge economy but in other sectors too:

  1. Fostering a time culture that encourages creativity, collaboration and resilience.
  2. Desiging an operating model that has flexibility built into its core.
  3. Creating opportunities for all kinds of talented people to contribute their skills and expertise, and tailoring rewards and benefits to the individual.
  4. Nurturing human-centric workplaces that value openness, learning and empathy.

Jane cites the example of Buurtzorg, the Dutch healthcare organisation where teams are trusted to self-manage and encouraged to be entrepreneurial and collaborate with partners. As KPMG observed in a case study: “Essentially, the programme empowers nurses (rather than nursing assistants or cleaners) to deliver all the care that patient’s need. And while this has meant higher costs per hour, the results have been fewer hours in total. Indeed, by changing the model of care, Buurtzorg has accomplished a 50 percent reduction in hours of care, improved quality of care and raised work satisfaction for employees.”

The global pandemic has taught us that businesses can transform at speed and ditch fixed views about what is and isn’t possible. There is no reason why we can’t swiftly design healthier, more sustainable working practices and environments that work better for all of us and that reward people more equitably for the time they devote to work.  As the Buurtzog example shows, businesses will benefit too through improved innovation, workforce flexibility and performance over the longer-term.


Read Jane’s review of The Future of Time here.

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