So They Think It’s All Overtime..?

First appeared in ‘Public Servant’ (U.K.)

Working smarter to eliminate a long-hours culture is an essential in the modern workplace. Some managers have yet to gasp that a work-life balance policy means little without practice

Senior managers encourage colleagues and staff to work more effectively (work smarter, not harder) and spend more time at home with their family, pets or hobbies. Yet their actions scream out just the opposite.

People are looked upon favourably at work for being available 80 hours a week. Managers are promoted for showing such dedication and dropping family plans to meet work commitments. Of course, it only seems right that these people are rewarded.

It follows that the others – the nine to fivers – who come in, do a good job and go home, will not get the same rewards. It is only when you stop and think about this that you realise what an unusual situation this is, and what messages are being sent.

People have a contract and are paid to do a job, for a set period. However they are frequently at a disadvantage if they do only that. They are expected to do more. This is not written anywhere – it is just assumed. It is part of the business culture. Imagine if this happened in sport.

In the World Cup, at the end of a 90-minute football match you would see one member of the team still out there playing – and expecting to be paid more. In the same way that 1,500-metres runners could not sustain the pace for an extra lap when they had trained for four laps of the track, people who are geared to working eight hours and then put in an extra two cannot sustain the quality of output.

Occasionally people can produce extra. Some who work long hours do so day after day. They do however become tired and prone to making mistakes. The workplace becomes the only place they know and they can lose perspective. They often come under pressure from home demands and become stressed.

This is well-documented but ignored. There is a short-term mindset that needs such dedicated staff to tackle the latest crisis. Managers believe they will address the problems eventually, but not just yet.

The key to breaking out of this cycle is the behaviour of senior managers. They must set the example. It is not enough to sign an email produced by the HR department urging staff to look at work-life balance, when you are still working 100 hours yourself.

But why are leaders so driven to work ridiculous hours? If you ask them what they want out of life they invariably admit they would like more time with family or for other interests. Somehow they feel they cannot. It is to do with trust and control. There is also a feeling of being indispensable and exceptional. I suggest there is also a macho element to coping with pressure.

This behaviour reinforces the work-life messages to staff. People respond to actions rather than words. Those actions are usually set out in some form of performance management system. In most systems outputs or goals are measured as well as a range of competencies.

The outputs are fairly standard and well defined and will have been set for someone working a standard day and to a particular level of quantity and quality. If you cannot produce in the agreed time to the agreed quality you would fail to meet your objective.

The behaviour required, however, tends to highlight the differences in what is written and what is expected. Most sensible behaviour measures look at how effective people are at producing the outputs. Do they work as part of a team? Or do they steal all the nice work? Other measures have scope for reporting on the way people work – their level of commitment, their willingness to go above and beyond.

Frequently this is seen through the person’s willingness to work outside office hours. Sometimes this can be directly opposed to policy.

It is a nightmare trying to reconcile this and invariably policy is ignored as staff who work late are rewarded. What of the staff who cannot do this, because they have children to collect, parents to care for? Part-time staff tend to suffer a similar fate. They may be disadvantaged, not from any lack of commitment on their part, but from a lack of opportunity.

If people want to work longer hours – so be it. They need not necessarily be rewarded financially. If they enjoy putting in the long hours then work itself may be their reward. If managers want to encourage part-time staff, the first step is to ask what they need. They will have far more practical and creative ideas on how they can demonstrate their effectiveness.

Senior managers need to be role models and to mark out commitment by rewarding staff who do an excellent job in the time available.


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