What Happens When We Manage Our Own Time?

March 16, 2011 / General /

By Ryan W. Quinn

In Monday’s entry I described research by Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter that shows how you can improve collaboration and performance in the workplace when employees take time off from work. One of the key principles they suggested was necessary to make this kind of time off successful was support from the people who are in formal leadership positions. Today I would like to share a story of a person who did what Perlow and Porter suggest without management support.

The Quandry

A friend and of mine–I’ll call him Peter–told me a story once about when he was working in a high-powered New York advertising firm. The culture there was very much like the one that Perlow and Porter describe at the Boston Consulting Group: working night and day all week to deliver for clients. People expected their co-workers to be working and knew when people were not around.

Peter was in a relatively early stage of his career, and concerned about his long-term career prospects in the firm, when he was asked by a community organization to take on a volunteer position of significant responsibility. He was deeply torn. This volunteer position could end up taking nearly 40 hours a week to perform. It would mean leaving his job at 5 or 6 p.m. instead of late in the evening, and much less ability to work on the weekends. Everyone would notice. At the same time, he felt a strong moral compulsion to serve in this organization where he knew he was needed. Eventually, as an act of faith, he accepted the position.

The Work

Peter tried to make up for the fact that he was not putting face time in at work by working even harder, taking less breaks, and finding creative ways to maximize his time. He was deeply nervous, though, because a co-worker and friend who was hired at the same time as him worked many more hours than him, and anyone who looked could tell. He was worried about what this might mean at their annual evaluation.

The Result

When the time for annual evaluations came, Peter walked into his meeting with a little trepidation. To his surprise, he was not only given glowing reviews, but the partner who gave him the glowing reviews made some comment about how he was outperforming the person who was hired at the same time as Peter. Shocked, Peter asked how this could be. The partner replied that it was taking the other employee three times as long to get the same quality of work accomplished as it was taking Peter.

Reflection and Questions

In telling this story, it is important to note that things could have turned out differently. In another organization, Peter may have had a boss who valued face time more than effectiveness. Perlow and Porter are right to encourage leaders to give formal support to time off programs. Just because Perlow and Porter are right about that observation, however, does not mean that people are impotent without their bosses’ approval. As this story illustrates–and as Perlow’s larger research program attests–, we often make assumptions about time, and about others’ beliefs about time, that are simply inaccurate. We can become slaves to these assumptions, even if they do no good for us, for others, or for our organizations. We can become much more extraordinary if we are willing to question these assumptions and talk about them with others.

What assumptions about time might you, or others in your organization, be unwitting slaves to? How might your boss react in a situation like Peter’s? What are three ways you could manage your time that might make you even more effective, or perhaps even extraordinary? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.