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.
5. REVIEW POLICIES & PROCESSES
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.