Less is more when it comes to working hours

The more we work, the less we achieve. That just doesn’t seem right, does it?

And yet, in one very important sense, it’s true: as study after study has shown, the longer our working day, the less productive we become (see John Pencavel’s study The Productivity of Working Hours for an overview).

We have known this for over 100 years. Back in 1908 Ernst Abbe’s seminal study of working hours at the Zeiss lens laboratory concluded that workers should be limited to an 8 hour-day, because working for 9 hours caused them to make more mistakes – and that this, in turn, forced them to spend yet more time correcting these mistakes. 

However, in most workplaces today, it is much harder to measure productivity than it was in Abbe’s day. A lack of measurable output causes us to focus on input as the only tangible sign of a worker’s effectiveness. Those who work longer hours are therefore regarded as the most valuable employees and rewarded accordingly; those who leave on time are derided as part-timers. 

In more recent years, academics have become more and more concerned about the effect this is having not only on productivity, but on health and well-being. In a series of studies since 2009, Marianna Virtanen has found that an 11-hour working day doubles the risk of depression, creates mild cognitive loss from middle age and predicts early dementia.

Working long hours doesn’t make sense on any level. Yet we continue to do it.

Which is why it’s so refreshing to see that a New Zealand financial services company has taken an even more radical step than Zeiss did back 1908: trialling a reduction in the working week from 5 days to 4 days, without increasing the hours worked per day, or reducing salaries one iota.

And, in the pioneering 8-week study, Perpetual Guardian found that its employees were just as effective in 32 hours spread across 4 days as they used to be in 40 hours spread across 5. 

How so?

Well, employees were invited to come up with initiatives that would help them be more productive. The best of these were worked through and implemented during the trial – things like greater automation of manual processes and the reduction of non-work-related internet usage. After the 8-week trial, not only was productivity constant, but stress levels were down and life satisfaction up significantly.

No doubt, as the Perpetual Guardian leadership team says, there are still more lessons to learn from the trial and improvements to be made. No doubt, also, the novelty effect and the immediate, tangible prize on offer (of winning an extra day off) played a part in the success of the trial. Whether that effect would be sustained over time is open to question. The company’s board are reportedly now considering how to introduce the four-day week in all appropriate areas of the business, so sooner or later we should get the answer to that question. 

For now though, we can conclude that this trial shows what’s possible with enlightened leadership, smarter working practices and motivated employees.

The New Zealand government is reportedly interested in extending the trial to other companies. It would be wonderful if a few British companies also stepped forward.





Why culture is a business priority

Workplace culture only seems to make the headlines when it is outed as toxic. The recent revelations about Nike are just the latest example.

But, of course, most CEOs will tell you they don’t have a toxic culture. And so, they prioritise other areas. There are customers to serve, products to produce, supplier relationships to build, financial targets to hit and shareholders to manage: and this is where most leaders tend to focus their energies.  

Let’s leave aside the fact that – like Mark Parker at Nike – they might be wrong about the state of their culture… and let’s consider a more probable scenario: that the way people feel in their organisation is having an impact on how well they’re doing their jobs. In other words, on their ability to deliver products on time, keep customers happy and hit those financial targets. 

This is more than probable, isn’t it? It’s unavoidably true. The way we feel is fundamental to how we perform. We all know this.

And a central factor in determining how we feel is our ability to connect with those around us – our colleagues. 

Indeed, connectedness between people at work has been repeatedly shown to be a significant predictor of business performance. Professor Sandy Pentland’s work at MIT has been dedicated to this area and his key insight is that the more people talk to each other – across floors, between departments and across hierarchical levels – the more likely a group is to perform strongly. Quoted by Daniel Coyle in The Culture Code, Pentland says:

“Conversation predicts 30% and sometimes 40% of the productivity in work groups.” 

I don’t want to reduce the term “culture” to this one factor, but I’d argue that connectedness is the hallmark of a healthy culture: the ability of everyone to work together, to be able to give of their best in each other’s company and, in turn, to get the best out of each other. 

But how can this even begin to be possible in a place where it’s OK to undermine and overlook people based on their gender, skin colour, or age? Indeed, how can it be possible when undermining and overlooking people is OK on any grounds at all? 

However, we shouldn't underestimate how hard it is to overcome these instinctive behaviours. Neuroscience has shown that fear and self-protection are stronger instincts in adult humans than experimentation, collaboration or the pursuit of pleasure. (Read Dan Cable's Alive At Work for more on this).

So, in an environment where we feel even a little bit threatened, humans err on the side of caution - protecting our knowledge base, staying silent when we could speak out, blaming other rather than admitting our own failings and advancing our own status at the expense of group advancement.

This is brilliantly illustrated by a famous study done by Peter Skillman at Stanford University - then subsequently reported a great many times in different places, always with the same results. The challenge is to build the highest possible tower using spaghetti, tape, strong and a marshmallow (which must sit on top). 

Skillman and his colleague Tom Wujec have administered it to all sorts of professional groups, including CEOs, lawyers and business students. But the highest towers have been constructed by a different type of group altogether: kindergarten kids.

Marshmallow Challenge.png


The researchers observed that the adult groups spent much of their time theorizing, advancing their arguments and jockeying for status. Dominant voices then emerged and collaborative effort diminished, resulting in less effective performance. The kids, on the other hand, just got on with it – each trying stuff out, experimenting messily, but building on the breakthroughs they achieved, no matter whose idea it had been.

We can conclude that psychological safety – and thereby strong collective performance – is especially hard to attain among high achieving, ambitious adults. And how much more so when the stakes actually matter? 

It seems that fear, status protection and perceived self-interest are automatic drivers of behaviour in adult groups – often to the detriment of communication, connectedness and collective performance. 

Even if your culture isn’t toxic, it’s likely to be beset with these issues. And your business will be less productive as a result. Overcoming these human barriers and building psychological safety is really hard. But if you don’t make it a priority, you’ll never unlock the true potential of your organisation.

Some lessons on culture change from Disney

Many people will contend that leaders can’t shape the culture of their organisations. Culture is too elusive, too embedded and, above all, too organic. 

I believe that it can be all three of these things, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be shaped. There are too many examples of leaders who have achieved this feat for it to be written off as an impossibility. And the principles which make it possible are supported by decades of scientific research.

One shining example of a leadership team reshaping a culture is the impact of Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter on Disney’s animation studio, following the 2006 acquisition of Pixar by Disney. As Daniel Coyle relates in his excellent book, The Culture Code, Catmull and Lasseter were put in charge of a team who had just produced a string of unprofitable flops – including Brother BearTreasure Planet and Home on the Range. The movies which followed the reverse takeover were on a different level altogether: they included TangledZootopia and, most famously of all, Frozen. Those three films alone grossed around $2.8m.

Catmull & Lasseter achieved this remarkable turnaround without changing the personnel. Instead, they changed the culture. But how?

Catmull explains this to Coyle in the humblest yet most insightful of terms: 

“We put in some new systems, they learned new ways of interacting, and they changed their behaviour; and now they are a completely different group of people when they work together.”

The three most significant changes they instigated were as follows:

1. They changed the seating plan. They put all the creative people together and created a meeting space close by to encourage serendipitous conversations.

2. They changed the power structure. Where previously, studio execs allocated stories to directors, now it was the directors who were responsible for coming up with the stories. Once a story was green-lighted, the execs’ job was to support them.

3. They nudged a change to the creative development process. They invited the Disney directors and executives to Pixar and let them experience one of their famous Brains Trust meetings. These peer-to-peer feedback sessions are key to Pixar’s hit rate and, having seen them first hand, the Disney guys elected to create their own version. 

Of course, it wasn’t easy. The changes took time to take effect. It required perseverance. And it helped that Disney hadn’t hired duffers. Catmull and Lasseter had talent to work with. But, as anyone who’s worked with talented creative people knows, they don’t tend to like change. Nor do they like being told what to do. 

But then Catmull and Lasseter knew that. Which is why they focused simply on creating the conditions in which these talents could thrive. 

Together, these changes demonstrated a clear sense of purpose – putting creativity front and centre – and injected real energy and belief back into the Disney set-up. By empowering and supporting the creative talent, they got the best out of the creative talent. 

Complex and messy though the transition undoubtedly was in practice, these are actually pretty simple principles to take away. They are underpinned by decades of psychological research into the motivational power of autonomy and self-esteem; as well as by more recent behavioural science research, which shows that one of the most effective ways to change behaviour is to change the context in which that behaviour takes place. 

Such a contextual approach is indirect, slow and might seem too much like wishful thinking to many business leaders. To avoid this last charge, it needs to serve a clear purpose and be consistently applied. It also helps if it is embraced and “owned” by the people it’s designed to affect – which is why it’s necessarily slow. But, ultimately, this is how you shape culture. And, as the Disney example demonstrates, the results can be spectacular. 





Healthy cultures make for healthy profits

When I tell people that I help build healthy working cultures, I get a lot of blank looks. For many a commercially minded business leader, 'culture' is a concept which remains elusive, vague and really rather too soft.

Fortunately, a compelling business case has been made for investing in culture.

I’ve used it in the work I’ve done with clients this past 12 months. And, finally, it dawned on me that it might be a good idea if I shared it.

It’s based on a study in which US consultants Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton collaborated with Towers Watson to understand how different cultural metrics correlate with profitability. The research was conducted among 50 globally high performing businesses with over 300,000 employees, collectively.

In a nutshell, it established that businesses with healthy cultures enjoy profits close to three times greater than those without.

There were three ingredients which were consistently present in the highest performing businesses:

  • Engagement: Essentially attachment and effort, this is perhaps the most commonly measured workplace culture metric. It’s important, but Gostick & Elton found that it was far more powerful when combined with the other two ingredients. 
  • Enablement: Essentially the sense of being supported and equipped to excel. This refers both to the way people feel about their colleagues (at all levels and across all departments) and the extent to which the working environment (their kit, their desk, their office etc.) helps them to do their job well.
  • Energy: Essentially, feelings of well-being and purpose. Energy can be produced at work as well as expended. You feel it when you walk into a place. In large part, it depends on whether people feel their work is worthwhile. It helps, too, if it's enjoyable. But, crucially, it does also depend on the ability to take breaks and have a manageable workload. 

In summary, the profit dividend of healthy cultures was found to be as follows. In companies where all three "Es" were strong, profit margins were in excess of 27% on average. Those where engagement was high, but the other two Es were less strongly felt, had margins of almost half that - 14.3%. This was still almost 50% better than firms where employees failed to record a strong result on any of the metrics - these had margins of below 10%, on average.


The value of employee engagement

So engagement does matter. But it's striking how weak its business impact is, when it exists in isolation from enablement and energy. Why is this? 

The classic criteria used to assess engagement include things like how long employees see themselves working in the business; how motivated they feel to go above and beyond; and how much they’d recommend working there to friends. All important, for sure, and all proven to be predictors as well as indicators of business success. 

But a lot gets overlooked if you focus solely on this measure. 

It may be that there's a lot of tension between different departments, or that your boss doesn't give you as much freedom as you need to perform at your very best. It may also be that you work long hours and are pretty exhausted most weekends. None of this stops you saying in a survey they you’re prepared to go above and beyond. After all, that’s more a question of personal pride than organisational loyalty. 

In fact, your loyalty might still be in tact too – at least for now – depending on lots of other factors (including the number of viable alternative employers in your area). And you might even recommend working there to others, despite the long hours, because maybe it’s a company which looks good on your CV, or perhaps the perks are good, or the particular department you work in is full of good people. 

Maybe all of this is enough for you to overlook the other flaws. But maybe, one day, those flaws will really hit you between the eyes. And then what? Resentment. Stress. Low productivity. Departure. Nothing positive, that’s for sure.

This is why the other two measures are so vital. 


The value of enablement & energy

Measuring enablement forces a business to attend to the basics: clear roles and responsibilities, a boss who listens and supports you, productive collaboration between teams as well as within them, a physical working environment that helps you to do your job well and a sense that you are learning and progressing at work. All of these things can be addressed and improved through direct means and it is not hard to see how they can lead both to improved business performance and higher engagement. Indeed, I’d argue that only if enablement is high, can you be confident that high employee engagement scores have deep roots.

But what of the third ingredient? Energy is perhaps the most interesting of the three – not least because it’s easily the most overlooked. Indeed, this is where the hard-nosed commercial brain really kicks against soft ideas like meditating, going home on time and not answering emails at the weekend. 

And I'm not just talking about the boss's brain here. We all discount these ideas in our own mind. Many of us probably regard them as signs of weakness. Without being coerced, we skip lunch breaks (and even lunch itself); we work late; we work weekends; and we check emails constantly, even when we're on holiday.

In doing so we fly in the face of strong scientific evidence which shows that working for too long without a break damages not just our health, but also our productivity. Nutrition, rest and a good night's sleep are key to optimal performance. In their absence, we work increasingly inefficiently - even when we feel positively towards our work.

I suspect there are many profitable businesses out there whose employees may well feel both engaged and enabled, while also feeling high levels of stress and having little or no energy for the other things in their life. The question is: can they go on like this indefinitely? 

The Towers Watson data would suggest that the smartest business leaders have worked out the answer to that one. 

It may feel soft to invest in employees’ emotional needs, as well as their professional ones. But the evidence tells us that looking after people really does matter – at a commercial level. It’s not soft, it’s not vague and it’s certainly not elusive. It’s within the grasp of every business leader – they just need to pay more attention to it.

For more information about the Decision Practice’s Cultural Healthcheck, contact me at john.owen@decisionpractice.com

Want to spend less time on email in 2018? Maybe there's another way.

The year begins. After a blessed period of more or less enforced holiday for everyone, we’re all back at our keyboards again. And before you know it, the in-box is heaving again. Bloody email. 

If you asked office-based workers for one New Year’s Resolution that would make work better, I’m willing to bet that “spending less time on email” would come pretty near the top. It comes up in virtually every conversation I have with people about their frustrations at work. 

Managers are also becoming increasingly aware of the effects on productivity. Numerous studies support their fears. To cite just one, by the Radicati Group in 2015, we receive, on average, 88 emails a day. If we attended to every one of these emails as it came in, we’d be interrupted every 5 or 6 minutes. In reality, we spend about 25% of our working day managing emails. 

So, we know the extent of the problem. We just don’t seem any closer to solving it.

But I just wonder if we’re framing the problem wrongly. 

Is it about spending less time on email? Or is this wishful thinking? Is email not now a fixture of working life? Rather than wishing it away, are we not better off figuring out how we can accommodate it and organise ourselves around it more effectively? 

Look on the bright side: even if email does take up a quarter of your day, that still leaves the other three-quarters to play with. How are you using that time? More pertinently, how are you protecting that time so that you can be more productive with it? 

As Alex Pang identifies in his book, Rest, 4-5 hours per day of focused work is all that was required by many of the most prolific and successful people of all time – from Dickens, Darwen, Mann and Poincaré in centuries gone by to contemporaries like Stephen King and Scott Adams. Their secret has been to organise their day so that they can dedicate this amount of time to their most important work: the creative stuff, the thinking stuff, the researching stuff, the writing stuff – you know, the stuff that you never seem to have time for at work any more. 

How can you get that time back?

Well, the good news is that you don’t have to carve out one big window in your diary for it each day. In the modern workplace, that would be largely impossible and, in any case, spending that amount of time in one big hit on focused, productive work is not optimal. 

What the artists and scientists listed above all seem to have figured out is that hard thinking is best done in 90-minute bursts. 

One way or another, that’s how they all organised their day – three stints, usually two in the morning and one in the afternoon (when the brain is tiring a little), of really focused mental exertion. In between times, they do (or did) all the other things everyone else does – notably spending a significant amount of time answering emails (or letters). 

Of course, the fact is that all of these people work (or worked) for themselves – thereby gaining the freedom to organise their time as they fit. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. 

Perhaps, given the demands of office life, three lots of 90 minutes is a stretch. But, for most people I speak to, just carving out one slot of protected time each day would be a huge breakthrough. How can you do that for yourself? Perhaps that’s a better question to be asking yourself this January.

To be clear, part of the answer is reviewing the way you manage email. A big first step is to check your in-box at allotted intervals, rather than constantly being a slave to the alerts in the top right-hand corner of your screen. You can also assign specific slots in your day for writing emails & responding to those which require some thought. 

If this still ends up taking 25% of your day, so be it…at least you can claim back the rest of the time for other work. Realistically, this includes meetings – but, for goodness sake, ban yourself (and others) from checking email on their phones during this time. It should also include some time for yourself (or for you and your close work partner(s)) to focus on something important. 

Block this time out in your diary; leave your desk and find somewhere quiet; put your headphones on – do whatever it takes to protect that time. 

You’ll be amazed how much more productive you become. You’ll be happier too. And this time next year, you might not be worrying so much about bloody email.

We need to talk about Travis

(Or why, without its reviled values, Uber could become an also-ran)

It is too early to gauge the extent of the commercial damage caused by the recent revelations of toxic culture at Uber. Much will depend on whether people prioritise the immediate need for a cheap, convenient ride over their deeply held beliefs about fairness in the workplace. If Amazon's success is anything to go by, Uber probably has little to fear in this regard.

But that doesn't mean no harm has been done. And I'm not just talking about the enforced resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick. There has been real harm to employees, not least Susan Fowler, the former Uber engineer whose blog post triggered the recent turmoil; and this, in turn, has the potential to harm Uber's ability to attract the best talent in the future. Meanwhile, the revelations will also be grist to the mill of the "establishment" Uber has delighted in disrupting - potentially making it harder to win public support for its continued expansion.

The biggest commercial threat, though, is that the company ceases to operate with the same confidence, coherence and fleetness of foot that have been the hallmarks of its success to date. Like the CEO in whose image they were made, Uber's values are no longer deemed acceptable – and that could have a paralysing effect on the company.

Why? Because Uber is a paragon of decentralisation, empowering regional heads to "be themselves" and make the decisions necessary to hit their revenue and growth targets. The now infamous 14 values were only formally codified as late as 2015, but they were not new. As Brad Stone relates in his excellent book, The Upstarts, Uber's very first regional managers were explicitly told to go "hustle". From the get-go, they were expected to be "super-pumped", to "step on toes" and "confront" everything and everyone who stood in their way. When Kalanick formalised the values, he used a set of phrases that had been watchwords for years.

Indeed, anyone who doubts the power of corporate values to drive coherent decision making and fuel business success, while dispensing with the rigours of managerial control, need look no further than Uber. Putting moral objections to one side for just a moment, let's recognise that the values worked. And they did so for three reasons:

1.   They were in sync with the company's aggressively disruptive business strategy.

2.   They were clearly articulated, modelled and championed by the leaders.

3.   They were used consistently and overtly to guide and justify decision making.

These are the conditions under which strong, values-led cultures are built. And the last point is really the whole point. For this is what happens when values become what behavioural scientists call heuristics - simple, often automatically applied mental shortcuts. In situation x, we do y. We don't have to think. We just know. We operate on what feels like instinct, but is actually a very lean, very efficient form of corporate policy. We need no bureaucracy, no time consuming process. We can each act with confidence and autonomy and, as a consequence, we get things done.

Now, let's re-introduce our moral compass. The fact is that Uber's values quite expressly prioritised business performance over human decency. Morally, we can therefore denounce them. As employees, we can say: "I do not want to work there." As employers, we can follow the lead of those who say: "I do not want to employ anyone who thrived there." And yes, as customers, we can indeed delete the app and go in search of a black cab with its light on that's prepared to go south of the river (or whatever the local equivalent is).

Whether many people do any of the above or not, the fact remains that Uber can no longer use its erstwhile values to justify decisions - internally or externally. Uber’s remaining leaders can no longer champion and reward the values they have hitherto lived by. Its HR people can no longer cite "high performance" as a reason for not disciplining discriminatory behaviour. And its regional managers no longer have a rulebook by which to operate.

Can it reinvent a new set of values - or aspirations - quickly? Will renaming its War Room as the Peace Room really make any difference? Or will it now be doomed to espouse a set of "values" which belies, rather than informs, its operating culture?

My bet is the latter. And while that may sound like a machiavellian recipe for continued success, I suspect it will instead bring the same sort of confusion, stress and anxiety to its workforce as exists in most big corporate companies.

For as the great cultural theorist Edgar Schein said, human minds need cognitive stability. And nothing causes anxiety in the workplace quite so much as the disconnect between how we say we do things and how we really do things. Under such circumstances, success is much harder to come by.


Five ways to establish an energy management culture

In my last couple of blog posts, I’ve written about energy management: first, from the point of view of the individual employee, I identified some tactics that can help to re-generate energy levels; second, I sought to clarify the difference between energy management and time management; in what follows, I will examine five ways that employers can foster a culture in which energy management is embraced and adopted as the norm.


1. lead by example

Of course, the first thing leaders must do in order to effect change is to lead by example. In his seminal book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, American psychologist Robert Cialdini writes, “People defer to those in positions of authority and typically underestimate their tendency to do so.” This does not mean we will always do what the boss tells us to do. Rather, we are likely to do what the boss does. In other words, we take our cues for how to behave – whether to turn up on time, how to treat colleagues, whether to take breaks – from our leaders.

And here I must make a confession: I spent 25 years in media and marketing – the last 22 of which were in management positions and the last 12 of which were in a leadership position – and I don’t once recall telling a colleague that I was taking a break. Popping out to grab lunch, maybe. But if I was actually going to lunch, it would always be to talk shop with a client, journalist, or influencer of some sort. Otherwise, I’d bring a sandwich to my desk and read emails, blog posts or articles on my computer while I ate. And that was when I wasn’t writing reports, or planning meetings. So, throughout my career, I set a bad example to others. I was saying, in effect, “breaks are for wimps.”

I now know how dumb that was. So, if you’re a leader or manager, don’t do what I did. Set the right example instead, by taking breaks – and making this practice salient. Talk about it overtly. Declare it openly when you’re about to take a break. Have your PA use this as an explanation of why you’re not available right now. And stay on that break for the duration you planned, except in the direst emergency.


2. Educate and enable

Be aware that you can’t mandate break times to knowledge workers like you can to factory workers or shop assistants. Knowledge workers manage their own time. They have deadlines to hit and thought processes they want to follow. For these people – from designers to accountants to journalists and sales executives – a break becomes just another interruption if it is imposed.

Indeed, for breaks to work optimally, knowledge workers need to be free to choose not only when to take their break, but also how to spend it. This is because the effectiveness of a break activity depends heavily on personality and preference. Enjoyable, effortful activities may energise us and thereby generate recovery just as effectively as restful activities which relax us. But we each enjoy different things and, indeed, we may also find different things relaxing. For example, extroverts are likely to be energised by a social encounter in a break, whereas introverts may find this stressful. You may enjoy a run in your lunch break, while I may prefer to read a gossip mag. You may find it relaxing to read a novel while I prefer to listen to music. 

Educating employees so that they understand their own psychological make-up and can identify what relaxes and energises them is therefore a necessary part of building an effective energy management culture.


3. Encourage teams to build their own solutions

Individuals don’t operate in a vacuum. How and when they take their breaks may impact on others. However, if break strategies are agreed at the team level, balls that would otherwise have been dropped can be safely caught.

Of course, each team is different, in terms of the personalities it contains, the tasks it performs and the pressures it faces. Respect these different contexts and encourage teams to put in place energy management solutions that work for them. In the process they will become more invested in making the solutions work.

Bear in mind, also, that two more of Cialdini’s rules apply here: first, colleagues will tend to reciprocate favours (for example, when a colleague covers for you when you’re on a break, you will feel obliged to do the same for them); second, more generally, they will copy each other’s behaviour. The power of social norms is at its highest when it involves people like us – and people doing a similar job to us are most certainly in this category.


4. CONSIDER Workplace design

Ideally, you’d create a space in your offices where people can spend their breaks. And other spaces where people can work in peace, free from interruptions; and still others where they can collaborate. Standing desks provide people with the opportunity to move around, giving them fresh perspectives as well as being advantageous to physical health. Some of the most productive office spaces have such "agile" features and, if you have the budget to shake things up, or are about to move into new space, this is well worth thinking about.

However, office redesigns are not an option for many of us. They are expensive and take time. Fortunately, many of the best applications of behavioural science are low-cost and low-effort. They can be quickly trialled and just as quickly abandoned if they don’t work. But if they do work, they can be easily retained and built upon.

Studies have shown that workplaces containing plants are less stressful. Lighting, temperature and background noise all affect our mood and thereby our behaviours. Anything that can be sensed – from smells to sights to noise levels – should be thought about and controlled to the extent that this is possible.



More formal policies and processes can also help drive energy management cultures. For example, by giving staff the permission and the tools to divert emails sent to them while on holiday, companies like Daimler, and Huffington Post effectively "normalise" rest. Meanwhile, home working has also been shown to reduce stress and increase productivity. 

It’s important to recognise that even formal interventions like these still require the “buy-in” of those they affect. It might be best to think of them as nudges, or suggestions, rather than rules.

However, there may also be scope for enforcing some elements of process in the name of quality control - with energy management as the means to this end. Breaks enable us to think about problems sub-consciously. Indeed, as Daniel Levitin discusses in The Organised Mind, neurological studies have shown that this process enables us to think in ways that are free from the constraining, self-critical impulses in our brain. Often this results in better solutions. It follows that decision making and problem-solving tasks will benefit from processes which insist upon time for reflection.


In conclusioN: find out what works for you

The problems which deplete energy - long hours, back-to-back meetings, constant interruptions, ever tighter deadlines – are depressingly common. However, the solutions that help bolster energy levels are likely to be context-specific. They need to take account of the realities of your business model, customer needs, team functions, office constraints and existing culture – as well as of individual personalities. What is right for one business or team will be wrong for another. For this reason, I’ve sought here to establish some underlying principles that can inform these solutions, rather than offer specific ideas.

Each individual business should explore the options with its employees to try and identify a few things that might just work. As long as they don’t cost a lot, there isn’t much to lose by trying. At the very least, you will make a clear statement that energy management is being taken seriously within your organisation.

Why energy management is a crucial complement to time management

We all know that time management is important. At some point, I expect most of us have been preached to about the need to work through our to-do lists, to distinguish between important and urgent tasks and the concept of splitting our day into segments of time, each dedicated to a different priority. This is important and helpful stuff, for the most part. If your objective is to get more done, the ability to organise your time is crucial.

But time management theory has a blind spot. It tends to ignore one other equally crucial component of productivity: human energy. If you follow the time management advice of modern-day capitalist heroes such as Alan Greenspan and Gary Vaynerchuck, your goal will be to leave no empty spaces in your calendar because, to quote Vaynerchuck: "You have to use every second you get in a day." So you'll schedule three minutes on this, followed by two minutes on that: every little task will be planned exactly so that you can get through as much as possible in your day. Except that, at some point, you might want to go to the loo. Or, you know, breathe.

This is where energy management comes in. Coined by the psychologist, Charlotte Fritz, it refers to our ability to understand what depletes our energy levels and the measures we can take to preserve and restore them. The result – as Fritz and others have shown – is healthier, happier, more productive workers. So why is it not better understood or more widely practiced?

Sadly, the dominant corporate culture lauds the approaches of Greenspan and Vaynerchuck because it regards the need for breaks as a sign of weakness. Time management speaks to the need to be productive all the time and is therefore regarded as a positive commercial tool. Energy management recommends breaks from productivity and is therefore dismissed as a licence to shirk.

It may, indeed, seem counter-intuitive, but the evidence is that by filling your day with productive tasks, you ultimately render yourself less productive. There is strong scientific evidence that mental performance declines as the day progresses – because the brain tires with continued use, just like your leg muscles when you run or cycle. People like Vaynerchuck and Greenspan may be the cognitive equivalents of Mo Farah or Chris Froome, but most people don’t come close to having their drive or, for that matter, their physiology. So it’s unrealistic, unfair and even dangerous to expect ordinary workers to emulate them. It’s also commercially dumb.

This is not to decry time management strategies, but it is to argue for the balancing effect of deploying energy management strategies alongside them. By taking the occasional break, we become more productive on the next task. In other words, we do the stuff we do better - and this can be a more effective route to productivity than simply getting more stuff done.

While I argued in a previous post that individuals can initiate some of these strategies by themselves, I am equally clear that the scope of what they can achieve is limited by the corporate culture in which those individuals work. So, over the next few posts, I will explore some of the most important insights into managing energy in the workplace, and how to foster a culture which permits and encourages people to do so.

One thing you can control in 2017: your personal energy levels

Away from the macro-political upheavals, economic challenges and technological innovations that form the basis of most turn-of-the-year musings, here’s a thought that is as micro as it gets: you can make yourself happier and better at your job by paying attention to your energy levels and actively managing them.

Obvious though it may sound, not many of us do this currently. We manage time, of course, with all our to-do lists and prioritisation sheets. But energy itself is little understood and very rarely calibrated in the modern workplace.

I’ve just conducted some research into this for my masters dissertation in behavioural science at the LSE. Over 150 people responded to a survey I conducted with fellow student and RSA researcher, Ian Burbidge. Around a third of our respondents worked in media and advertising, with the other 100 drawn from a variety of industries including financial services, healthcare, IT and the charitable sector. Thanks if you were one of them, by the way! Here are some of the topline results.

Less than a fifth say they organise their day to take advantage of natural highs and lows in their energy levels. Still fewer have made a habit of taking short breaks in the working day to recover. At the same time, over 80% say they feel overwhelmed at work, at least some of the time; 75% say they are interrupted frequently, or all of the time; and 70% say they regularly check email from home for their own peace of mind.

In a sense, these figures tell us what most of us already know: that there is no natural downtime anymore, but - at the same time - it’s hard to find the space to actually focus on our work. It’s little wonder people feel overwhelmed.

So why are so few businesses doing anything about this? Initiatives to block email outside of office hours and limit the hours in which meetings can be scheduled at Daimler, Huffington Post and Wieden & Kennedy are exceptions to a pretty strict rule. This rule says that productivity and profit are functions of hard work and that ambitious people with a will to succeed put in long hours – while demanding the same of everyone else. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that long hours don’t add up to better productivity – quite the reverse. But our innate competitiveness, at both an individual and corporate level, makes it hard to pause, reflect and find a smarter strategy.

Of course, not all the solutions to this are entirely micro. Unless business leaders take the initiative, it is actually pretty hard for ordinary employees to do much on their own. Social norms have a powerful influence on behaviour and, if in doubt, we tend to follow the herd. This is also evident from our study: a surprisingly modest 30% of respondents think their boss expects them to check email out of office hours, but only 11% say they are explicitly discouraged from doing so. In such ambiguous circumstances, we go with the flow and do what everyone else does: we check our email. So addressing workplace culture is a massive need – and opportunity – for business leaders. And, by the way, that’s something I can help with.

Nonetheless, there are things individuals can do: small things that hardly anyone will even notice. Like taking just a few minutes in every hour to look away from your screens and stop thinking about work.

Don’t try to do too much during these breaks. Unless you’re an extrovert, social interactions might deplete you further. So don’t be afraid to take yourself off for some quiet time. Listen to a bit of music as you walk round the block. Or just look out of the window, especially if there are some trees or a park in view. Even just sitting at your desk and thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner might be enough to let your mental resources recover, such that when you return your focus to your work task, you suddenly feel that much more energised.

Unless you’re actually in between tasks, you won’t want to break for too long. Too much time away can result in a degree of psychological detachment which makes it stressful to re-engage. Just a couple of minutes might be enough.

But, if you’ve completed one thing and are able to take a little bit of time before starting the next, another good ploy is to use that time – 5, 10, or 15 minutes, say – to help a colleague. Whether this is with a work task that you know they’re struggling with and that you find relatively straightforward, or whether it’s just offering to make them a cup of tea, the evidence is that making a colleague happy can regenerate your own energy levels.

All of the above is based on academic studies, not just common sense. If you’re interested to know more about the research, I’ll happily point you in the right direction. The best exploration, though, is to try it out: in 2017, make taking breaks a salient goal in your working day. It will cost you nothing and I would expect that for most of you, it will make a bigger difference than you might think.

Three ways of pitching an original idea


I went to an excellent talk by Adam Grant last evening, hosted by the how: to academy. Grant’s book, Originals, is about how to get innovative ideas off the ground. It champions disrupters and disruption, urging individuals to speak out when they have an idea and organisations to encourage and facilitate this. Of course, without the latter condition, the former is a very risky course of action. Hence why it’s rare; and why anyone thinking of giving it a go needs all the help they can get. Assuming that means you, here are three fascinating and counter-intuitive suggestions for how to sell big ideas, courtesy of Adam Grant.


1. Frame scary ideas so they’re not so scary

 We love to sell a vision, don’t we? The bigger the better, we often tell ourselves. But sometimes, a really big idea can scare people off. According to Grant, Elon Musk attracted top minds to his SpaceX project by pitching it simply as a bid to get a commercial flight into space. Quite scary, by most of our standards, but it was only later that Musk revealed his true mission: the whole colonizing Mars thing . This is reminiscent of the “Foot in the Door” strategy deployed since time began by salesman the world over and identified by psychologists in the 1960s. The way it works is that I sell you a small thing now, so you’ll be primed to buy the bigger thing later. Sneaky? Perhaps. Smart? For sure. I’d argue the ethics depend more on what it is you’re selling than the methodology itself. Ultimately it might be the only way to get someone to make the best decision of their life.


 2. Present the flaws in your idea

Another standard principle of the salesman is never to admit a weakness. Accentuate the positive at all times. But Grant begs to differ. Often he says, it is smarter to call out the weaknesses of your idea before your audience gets a chance to do so. Perhaps don’t start there, he admits…but once you’ve established the problem you’re passionate about solving and pitched the idea, you should then give your potential backers some reasons to walk away. The chances are they’ll be attracted to your candour and self-awareness. They’ll also have only one option remaining if they want to show how smart they are: no longer able to point out the flaws, they’ll have to start giving you ideas for how to resolve them! I think there’s a lot of truth in this. It recalls the pratfall effect and the way we are attracted to imperfection - but only once competence as been established. As Grant points out, it’s how Rufus Griscom sold Babble to a bunch of venture capitalists and then, two years later, to Disney for $40m.


 3. Make the unfamiliar seem like a long lost friend

We strive for originality. We hate to belittle our idea by pitching it as some sort of copy. But one of the big reasons why fresh thinking is so hard to buy is that we are all have a bias towards the familiar and the readily understood. We like familiar things so much that we actually confuse familiarity with liking – which is why we judge smiling faces to be more familiar to us than neutral or negative looking ones. So linking a new idea to a familiar one is a way of making it seem more attractive. According to Grant it’s how the creators of Disney’s first original-concept animated movie sold their idea to Michael Eisner, the CEO, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Studio chief. When “Bambi in Africa with lions” failed to cut it, Eisner reportedly asked if it could be made into a take on King Lear. At which point one of the producers seized the moment: “No, this is Hamlet.” Sold. The Lion King earned 2 Oscars as well as over $1bn in takings for Disney.


What all of the above have in common is their psychological insight into the mind of the decision-maker. They temper the enthusiasm and passion of the idea originator with the recognition that big ideas ask a lot of the "buyer". By seeing the problem through their eyes,  all three of these pitch techniques make it easier for buyers to say yes - and for big, fresh, innovative ideas to happen.