Time is our most valuable asset
Business owners and executives tend to talk about their people being their most valuable asset, which is right and good. But I suggest there is another way of framing this: time is the most valuable asset. I should add here that, broadly speaking, I’m referring mainly to businesses that provide intangible products and services rather than those industries that require raw materials, plant and machinery to manufacture or distribute tangible goods. However, some of the principles will still apply across different types of business, regardless of what industry you’re in.
Our time is finite: no one gets more than 24 hours in a day. So what we all do with our time becomes the most important question. What value do we place on our time? How do we use our time at work? What choices and tradeoffs do we make? What impact do these have?
These are big questions. But they aren’t questions to which we pay much attention; in fact, we mostly ignore them. I don’t recall talking with colleagues or managers over the years about what we collectively spent our hours on and whether we were making the right choices. I’ve rarely heard business leaders talk about their own use of time – what they invested their time in and what they chose not to invest time in – or seen them take steps to free up our time so we can focus on the work that really matters.
Instead, we carry on much as we’ve always done. Our collective attitudes and habits with regard to time at work remain largely fixed, year after year. We are stuck in an old way of operating that isn’t beneficial to our health, our productivity or our businesses.
Our time culture at work is broken
Most people have heard about an organization’s culture; some find it an intangible concept to get their heads around. A good definition of culture on which I rely is Edgar Schein’s definition:
Shared, basic assumptions held by members of a group or organization, developed from shared learning experiences. CEOs, organizational experts and management gurus all recognize that to perform highly, enjoy competitive advantage and sustain growth over the longer-term, businesses need to have a strong, healthy culture.
So what is our time culture? If organizational culture in general consists of shared assumptions, then time culture specifically is our collective attitudes, values and behaviours at work in relation to time. It covers how we think about time, how we value it and how we live those beliefs through our day-to-day actions, words and decisions. Time culture impacts and informs the usually unspoken assumptions, norms and behaviours about working hours, being available to participate in meetings and conversations, being responsive to requests, meeting deadlines over which you may not have any influence. In the Western corporate world, our time culture typically is characterized by short-termism, speed and volume: fitting a huge amount of effort and activity into a working day or week, multitasking, responding immediately to questions or requests, and paying close attention to daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly results. Our time culture is also characterized by bureaucracy - the plethora of processes, structures, organizational layers and governance protocols that we create and that shape the way we work.
This time culture is deeply ingrained. It’s so embedded in the way our organizations are designed, in our business ‘norms’ and in our historical approach to working that we rarely stop to think about it or question it. It is only when it causes us or our businesses extreme pain that we are jolted into a realization that we need to ‘fix’ things.
This time culture is hurting us as individuals. There are winners and losers; the winners are those employees whose home lives or backgrounds enable them to ‘fit in’ and who can ‘give what it takes’ to get ahead by accepting without question this unspoken deal regarding time. Other employees, who for a whole variety of reasons would benefit from a different deal, see their jobs become unsustainable and their careers progress more slowly or stagnate. This really bothers me. I believe in equality in the workplace: getting into a professional organization and flourishing there should be a possibility for all who want that kind of career. But it isn’t. It’s heavily loaded in favour of some employees and against others. Being able to ‘get in and get on’ in our current time culture is highly dependent on our gender, our personal situation and our demographic. It’s also dependent on us making sacrifices in terms of our own wellbeing.
And it’s not only hurting us: our time culture is hurting businesses too. Research shows that the most diverse and inclusive organizations consistently perform best in their market, delivering quality services to clients and attracting, retaining and developing the most talented employees in a highly competitive labour market. However, our time culture is negatively impacting companies through reduced productivity, wellbeing and diversity. As a nation, the working hours in the United Kingdom are the longest in Europe – or even the world – yet our productivity lags behind. The incidence of stress and mental ill-health has been rising steadily, costing our health services over £22 billion per year and employers over £42 billion per year. As workplaces are failing to meet the needs of different groups of employees, businesses are making glacial progress towards their diversity goals.
When we talk about time and work, we focus almost exclusively on the individual, thinking in terms of what working hours are agreed or expected and how many days’ leave we can take, and how many hours we have billed to clients or spent chasing new business. There are countless sources of advice and many thoughtful experts encouraging us as individuals to work smarter and harder, and to be more productive with our time. The overwhelming ethos here is ‘it’s all about the individual’ – but I would argue that it’s the system we need to fix. We need to stop treating the symptoms and start treating the cause. This means looking critically at how we work, at what we collectively spend our time doing, and asking ourselves: ‘Is there a better way – one that works better for each employee and works better for the business?’
By changing our time culture, we can create more sustainable ways of working that will allow all kinds of talent to flourish. Careers will last longer, and richer diversity of thought and experience will lead to better creativity and decision-making. More employees will be able to thrive and succeed, and employers will reap the benefits in terms of attracting and retaining talent and improving business performance.
1 E.H. Schein, Organizational culture and leadership, 4th ed., Jossey-Bass, 2010
2 ‘British workers putting in longest hours in the EU, TUC analysis finds’, TUC, 17 April 2019, www.tuc.org.uk/news/british-workers- putting-longest-hours-eu-tuc-analysis-finds.
3 ‘Paying the price: The cost of mental health care in England to 2026’, The King’s Fund, 2008, www.kingsfund.org.uk/sites/default/ files/Paying-the-Price-the-cost-of-mental-health-care-England- 2026-McCrone-Dhanasiri-Patel-Knapp-Lawton-Smith-Kings-Fund- May-2008_0.pdf.
4 ‘Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year’, Deloitte, 22 January 2020, www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/press- releases/articles/poor-mental-health-costs-uk-employers-up-to-pound- 45-billion-a-year.html.