You must have been warned against letting the golden hours slip by; but some of them are golden only because we let them slip by.
James M. Barrie

A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.
Charles Darwin

In a previous post, I discussed what I consider to be one of the simplest yet most powerful of skills the prospective leader must master – that of Being Present. This morning I spent an hour wrestling with a recalcitrant printer and it set me thinking about what is quite possibly the most valuable commodity in any business – time. It is an asset that most organisations have a very limited supply of and as a single asset to focus attention on it has the potential to unlock capacity in that other much-vaunted asset – people. The damage that coming to think of people as assets can do will have to wait for another post on another day. For now I’d like to ponder what draws down on the balance of available time at work and, I hope, show the value we could gain by solving our time deficit so that we might be more often present for those we work with.

In his fascinating book, “The Discovery of France”, author Graham Robb describes how medieval French peasants had so much leisure time (that is, time free from work) that they effectively went into hibernation for much of the remainder of the year once the planting and harvesting was out of the way, there being not much else to occupy them. Now, I’m not advocating an approach to time-saving that sees the working population under their duvets for six months of the year. Besides, we’re a little better at finding diversions outside of work these days. What is true however, is that they had a certain and relatively predictable window of time in which to complete the task at hand. It is often said that work expands to fill the time available and I think that this is often a consequence of a lack of clarity in delegating work. It is a simple one to get right: “Please do this. I need it done in this way. I need it to be completed by xxx. Thank you.”, but one we so often get wrong.

In 2012 a study, published in the journal “Age & Ageing” called for pedestrian crossing timings to be reviewed because it had been found that for those over the age of 65, 76% of men and 85% of women had a walking speed slower than that needed to use a crossing. This put an already vulnerable group at greater risk of fatalities from road traffic collisions. These are pedestrian controlled crossing with a timing set by the local council. For the manager delegating work, it is not only the clarity of how work is delegated and distributed but about an appreciation of the ability of his team or the individual to complete a task in any given time. It helps everyone plan more efficiently if sufficient time is allowed depending on the skill level of the resources available. Getting it right is better than getting it quick even when you factor in the current trend for looking kindly on failure as a natural, perhaps even desirable, part of a collaborative, creative and innovative workplace ecosystem.

In 2011, Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Teachers Union officials agreed to a meeting to discuss a plan to lengthen the school day but could not confirm a place at which to meet. The protracted wrangling over where to hold the meeting took so long that the time of the meeting itself came and went to, to widespread public disgust. A common complaint against managers today is that they set meetings up and are then often late and under-prepared themselves. This has been said often enough in greater depth elsewhere but it bears repeating because it is such a simple issue to remedy. Simply go through a mental checklist. Do you really need the meeting? Where and when will it be? Allow 15 minutes before and between any meetings to mentally and physically prepare, check emails etc. etc. Meetings are so often a waste of everyone’s time because they have no pre-agreed/desired/required agenda or outcomes. By ensuring you only have meetings for the most vital of topics you’re giving hours of time back to everyone involved.

In June 2012, a glitch in the CA7 batch process scheduler at RBS, NatWest and Ulster Bank resulted in 12 million frozen customer accounts. Customers were left unable to access funds for a week or more as staff at the banks manually updated all the account balances. The cost in compensation to account holders eventually rose to approximately £175m. Most day-to-day IT issues within organisations are not so high profile or embarrassing for brand reputation. However, they are incrementally costly in productive time lost. Many businesses are entirely dependent on technology for allowing staff to complete their work each day. Any failure, however small has an immediate and lasting impact. Some business processes can now only be accessed and completed electronically. When these systems fail, there is almost nothing else for staff to do. The costs are enormous. As business critical, service providers (both internal and external) should face hefty penalties for avoidable failure. Managers should also communicate closely with their IT counterparts to plan to have staff activities that require communal attendance timed to coincide with planned maintenance breaks.

In April of this year, first quarter profits for Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC slumped to a record low, with the company citing delays in making camera components for its HTC One device, pushing back its full launch. The delays cost the manufacturer heavily with sales for the period falling to $1.4 billion, and profits down to $2.85 million. Shares lost 60% of their value in the previous 12 months. The market is a fearful, skittish place. Investors easily spooked. In the smartphone arms race, time is seen as the enemy. The differences between products are at slim margins. Dawdle and a march will be stolen on you. Even businesses without a physical product to shift set themselves incredibly tight deadlines that create an unhealthy atmosphere in the organisation. Realistic expectation setting should be desirable at all levels and never set by those who have no appreciation of the realities of day-to-day delivery. Expectations should never be set by the CEO on the golf course or at the bar. If you aren’t intimately involved in the practical delivery of your services you should defer the setting of expectations to those you make accountable for doing so. Unless, of course, you wish to retain that accountability for yourself.

Every year, in businesses all across the planet, weeks of diary wrangling take place as managers and their teams try to carve out time to hold annual appraisal meetings. The very organisation of these meetings is a drain on the business’ productive time. The charade then plays out as manager and individual employee each discuss and agree the setting of development goals which they know they will struggle to meet because of the myriad other demands on their time. Personal development in the workplace is often the first sacrifice at the altar of expediency. And we are collectively the poorer for it. We live in a time when collaboration, innovation and creativity are desired by and of us like never before. However, we try to nurture these nascent talents in the barren sand of quickly running time.
If we want to make golden, valuable time at work we must not squander it on the making of the same mistakes over again.

Photo credit: Susanna Hertrich


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