One evening in early 2011 while running my former adventure travel company, I got thinking about my Singaporean girlfriend who would soon be moving to live with me in Bangkok. I’d never formally resided with a significant other and realized my schedule would have to change. For years I’d routinely worked very late nights and automatically came in most weekends. I loved being in the office and the work, but in order to make a meaningful relationship work, my hours were going to have to change.
At first I was quite concerned that spending less hours in the office would negatively impact my performance and possibly cause friction with my business partner. I soon discovered that more consciously planning to be out of the office and the hours I would be working improved my hourly output, quality of work and mental state. I more closely prioritized work to be done, focused solidly when I was at my desk, arrived and departed feeling more rested, and had a renewed sense of enthusiasm. This reduction in hours physically spent within the working walls had positive benefits on many levels.
Reading a McKinsey & Company leadership article, ‘How small shifts in leadership can transform your team dynamic‘, I was taken back to those first few months of 2011 and how I’d deliberately changed my working hours and style. The article related a recent study showing how productivity drops the longer people go without a break. It showcased an executive who intentionally takes walks and breaks, making it known to his team, and encouraging them to do so as well, thereby breaking down the often natural tendency for employees to put in the same long lengths of time at their desk as their boss does. He calls it ‘Leaving by Example’. The study goes on to illustrate that if people go ‘offline’ for a chunk of time, then concentrate uninterrupted on a task for at least one-hour (no chat programs or Facebook open), productivity rises. In essence, being out of the office and concentrating more fully while at the desk gets you further than sheer hours logged in your seat. This confirmed what I had experienced years before.
While modern computing technology has in many ways made work more flexible and expanded the type of work we are able to do, it has also put people in a position of always having to be ‘online’. Many companies stress a healthy work-life balance, but few actually put it into practice. Getting away from your desk now seems more crucial than ever. To this note, Netflix and Virgin are doing an interesting thing, allowing their employees unlimited vacation days, putting the decision making power of when and for how long vacation is appropriate in employees hands. As long as the work gets done, when it needs doing, people are free to take breaks and vacation as they see fit. Talk about a dramatic and empowering shift!
Consciously planning ‘offline’ breaks, when you will finish work, and deliberately not being at your desk all the time is key to productivity, happiness and realizing a healthy work-life-balance. I’m now happily married to the same woman who moved to Bangkok in 2011 and look back on that change in working style crucial to the success of not only my relationship, but also how I work. Sometimes less is more and good leaders will realize that hours spent in the office is not the prime indicator of a productive and valuable employee.