It’s not enough to be busy – so are the ants. The question is what are we busy at? - Henry David Thoreau

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s many leadership conferences had speakers who talked about an emerging era of leisure. Increased global prosperity and advancing technology was to herald a new period of development that would enable people to spend more time on their leisure. How seriously wrong such predictions now look. A cursory view of life in today’s corporate lane is to witness endless professionals and managers struggling with the sheer avalanche of a 24/7 work load. But for many it seems akin to wearing the “new black” of fashion- “if you’re not in constant demand and endlessly busy your simply not worthy!”

I’ve got more pressing immediate work to do
As a global executive developer and coach, I have witnessed a huge change in behaviour over the last few years. It used to be a coffee break at a business school or development programme would be accompanied by a strong discussion and exchange of views on the issues of the day or the presentation. Today people immediately hit their mobiles to get their latest emails and catch up with what is happening in their corporate lives. I can frequently go into a large corporate learning and development environment and be met by some ten highly intelligent professionals all with their heads down and doing email. This behaviour frequently continues throughout the day. No time to discuss anything of value with my colleague or peer I’ve got more pressing immediate work to do!  It seems as if we no longer have the capacity to pay attention or focus on someone without endlessly checking for my latest message.

One of the biggest corporate complaints I hear about from professionals involves the behaviour of colleagues who instead of listening to a highly researched and professionally prepared presentation, instead, choose to use the time to catch up with some other pressing emails or work. They do this seemingly oblivious to the fact that their lack of attention or respect is seriously irritating their colleague and eroding any sense of respect or trust they might have. This sheer lack of presence and attention to each other is becoming a real issue.

Similarly, development programmes, prompted by corporate demands, have been dramatically reduced in their duration. Today it is not uncommon to have clients say “we can only spare one day to do this work.” Requests for getting leaders to actively participate in programmes can be met with the refrain, “I think they’ll be too busy, but perhaps they might be able to spare 30 minutes if we can get the diary and timings right.” As I write there are leading advocates for what is currently being called micro learning – bite-sized five-minute training and development pieces that are designed to feed the needs of the time poor professional. The default position today is that I have no head space to accommodation anything unless it’s delivered at the speed of Snapchat or Instagram. The assumption being that we no longer have time to step back and reflect on what we are doing.

The distraction of multi-tasking
In many companies, off-site meetings that used to provide real focus and build a depth of understanding and commitment on complex and nuanced issues have been sacrificed on the altar of badly planned webinars and skype calls that enable participants to participate whilst driving to their dentist or simply switch to mute and multi-task on other immediate tasks. Many important webinars and conference calls are frequently started with individuals explaining why they will need to duck out after fifteen minutes to attend another meeting or deal with some other equally pressing issues. There is also the sheer technical and not inconsiderable challenge of time zones in trying to successfully connect people from the Americas, Europe and Asia. It all together makes for a sometimes, difficult and stressful experience.

Do we need to be time-poor and full-on?
Don’t get me wrong I run many highly successful webinars and conference calls and am a big fan of the technology and benefits that can result in terms of effectiveness and outcomes. Many a time I have reflected how much easier it was to have that Skype, Zoom or CISCO conference call with eight people across Europe rather than navigate Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 for a day. But to achieve such outcomes requires real planning, effort and commitment on all parties involved. However, what worries me is the underlying question -  Is this time poor and full-on harassed state, necessary or self-imposed?

There is no doubt that we are doing more work than before. In Craig Lambert’s thought provoking book, Shadow Work – The unpaid, unseen jobs that fill your diary, he comments on that fact that many jobs that used to be done for us we now do ourselves – we do our own travel bookings, we collect our own rail/plane tickets, we pack our own grocery bags, we frequently self-serve in hotel restaurants, we pump our own petrol, we renew our driver’s licence, passport, we process and pay our utility bills. Now it could be argued that we choose to do these tasks because it’s quicker and more convenient and marks the evolution of progress and technology. However, it can also be argued that it does indeed contribute to the wider sense that we are all time poor and have somehow in the process lost the ability to make better choices when it comes to prioritising and paying attention. Being “present” is a big challenge for most executives and many are failing to see the consequences of not being present in terms of their impact on others and their relationships.

Can every call and email request be that important that it needs to be answered now at the expense of the person(s) I have sitting in front of me?  Recent research on brain functioning has shown that there is correlation between the pleasure-seeking hormone dopamine and our relationship with Twitter, Facebook and email. It’s early days but there is evidence to suggest that some of us do have the capacity to become addicted to the immediacy of social networking. The instant gratification and buzz that comes from a quick email or social media type acknowledgement or “liked” response is very evident. In a recent video, leading organisation and leadership commentator Simon Sinek commented on the difficulties that millennials face in the corporate world. These include superficial relationships and an impending sense of impatience often caused by too much exposure to social media. He argues that currently many millennials are ill –equipped to operate in a corporate world where they often discover they are not valued and can’t expect to get something for nothing! Simon Sinek is a hugely influential thinker and I wonder if we are starting to see a shift in thinking around how we think about and use some of the technology.

Certainly, we seem to be suffering an epidemic of work overload in the corporate life. Many organisations and high profile leaders pontificate about promoting work life balance but in my wide experiences it is difficult to witness in the real world. There is a lot of talk and rhetoric but it is not backed up by the daily demands placed on people.

So, what can leaders and organisations do to address the issues:

Stop, pause and reflect – take time out to review and reflect on how you and your organisation and people are fundamentally working.

Stop the Work Life Balance hype – be honest about the situation and have a brutal conversation! Platitudes about work life balance only create cynicism and frustration. The first step to health for any alcoholic is to admit they have a problem. Does your organisation have a problem?

Make people aware of the issue – Provoke a brutal conversation around how people are working together. Change must start with awareness and behavioural change. Are your people aware there is a problem of workload and attention?

Provoke greater levels of self-awareness and consciousness - about how people make choices and the impact of those choices on others. We need, what one of my colleagues at PPI Ludmila Egorova talks about, greater levels of “Relationship Intelligence”

Set some clear and measurable standards – we see major and successful businesses in Germany starting to prohibit out of hours’ emails being sent. What standards does your organisation set - Monitoring working hours, tracking out of hours’ emails, employee engagement scores?

Lead by example – a fish rots from the head! Do leaders model the right behaviours? Determining what is truly urgent and important. Banning mobiles from meetings? Properly resourcing projects and initiatives and not expecting staff to do two or three jobs and excel in all!

Reward people who excel in the right behaviours – too often in corporate life the work-aholic is still seen as the dedicated hero rather than someone who displays toxic behaviours that have a negative effect.

Use development programmes - to promote fundamental levels of self-awareness and consciousness about the choices that people make when it comes to dealing with colleagues customers and others. Get people debating if the technology in their corporate lives is an enabler or a controller.

Should you want to find out more about how PPI enables leaders and organisations to deal with issues of presence and attention contact Gerry Buckley at gbuckley@theppinetwork.com.

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About the Author

Mark Thomas: Leading International Expert on Business Partnering

Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is an international business consultant, author and speaker specialising in business planning, managing change, human resource management and executive development. Prior to working with PPI he worked for several years with Price Waterhouse in London where he advised on the business and organisational change issues arising out of strategic reviews in both private and public sector organisations.