CEO Insider

Working time is a strategic asset. How is your organisation investing it?

Helen Beedham

It’s understandable if business leaders feel ready for some respite from the turmoil and challenges of leading organisations during the past few years; first Brexit caused untold headaches, then COVID-19 struck, now we are facing the disruption of global supply chains and the threat of a new war across Europe. Many executives can look back at the last few tumultuous years and rightly feel proud of all they have achieved in this challenging context.  They have scrambled to adopt and integrate new technologies, digitize working processes, redesign their operating models and transform front and back office operations, all the while supporting their workforces through the enforced shift to remote working and back into the office again. Many knowledge-based businesses have reported income and profitability growth in 2020 and 2021, testament to their organisational agility and determination.

Resting on one’s laurels is never an option though. With the Great Resignation, one of the most pressing concerns on leaders’ minds today is how to attract and retain a diverse workforce with the skills – both hard and soft – needed for the future.  In some industries the salary wars are raging: it’s a short-term strategy for holding onto star performers and filling urgent headcount and/or skills gaps.  But this approach rarely pays off over the longer-term, nor does it build employee loyalty. Pay might persuade people through the door but every CEO knows it’s their day-to-day experience of work that makes them stay, or leave. The real battleground is between those organisations that are genuinely striving to create positive, productive, inclusive cultures with forward-thinking work practices, and those that are not.

The pandemic has invited many workers to reflect on how much they love their job – or for how long they can endure it. For many, it is a matter of endurance: UK working hours are amongst the longest in Europe; overwork is the common with more than 5 million UK workers putting in a total of 2 billion unpaid hours of work in 2018, an average of 7.5 hours per week, per person. Despite – or more likely, because of this – UK productivity lags behind other nations; research has shown that above 45 hours worked per week, a person’s level of productivity declines dramatically. The incidence of stress, mental ill health and burnout is rocketing; these currently cost our health services over £22 billion per year and employers over £42 billion per year in sickness absence, turnover and lost productivity. A McKinsey & Co study published in early March reported that unsustainable workloads and an unsupportive work culture are top factors in people’s decision to leave their employer, while an MIT Sloan study released in January confirmed that ‘corporate culture is a much more reliable predictor of industry-adjusted attrition than how employees assess their compensation’.

For too long, people have been struggling with outsize workloads, a never-ending stream of short-term deadlines, distracting virtual and physical work environments and the deeply embedded cult of busyness which values urgency and task accomplishment more highly than reflection and interpersonal curiosity. People have gained some freedom to work from home but they are also reporting less joy in their jobs, more isolation and loneliness and worrying levels of cognitive depletion. They are seeking greater fulfilment from their work and richer connections with their co-workers. 

As new hybrid-working arrangements are being trialled, much debate revolves around when and where people do their work. But equal attention needs to be paid to how that working time is spent and valued. One deputy Chair with a distinguished record on equality, inclusion and people management commented that ‘time is the invisible frontier that must be embraced and put at the heart of all organizations that wish to thrive and build sustainably towards a better future for all’. The businesses that succeed in creating environments, working practices and cultures that actively encourage people to focus their attention, strengthen social bonds and work sustainably will be the ones which benefit the most from improved retention – and from more effective collaboration, creativity, innovation and client relationships and consequently, financial performance. 

To achieve this requires leaders to think strategically about people’s working time and how this finite asset is invested; in short, to manage collective working time. As the Chair of a FTSE 100 company questioned ‘there are so many ways in which we talk about time, we think about time, and we worry about time. But how many of us as leaders really put the necessary time into managing time?’

To manage collective working time well, leaders need to look holistically at their organisations and:

  • Decide how they invest their combined working time today and over the longer-term;
  • Focus on the few priorities that will help their businesses to succeed;
  • Streamline their organisation structures, work processes and technologies to reduce distractions, complexity and wasted time;
  • Rethink the way they recruit, manage, develop and reward people over the longer-term;
  • Create healthier, more productive working habits and environments that work better for everyone

This isn’t a one-off, box-ticking exercise and it isn’t about solving time for time’s sake. It’s about how you set yourselves up to achieve your business and organisational goals; it’s an ongoing strategy that requires persistence, dialogue, transparency and trust. It calls for ‘time-intelligent’ leadership where leaders are open about how they spend their own time and aware of the impact of this on others. They coach others by asking not ‘how quickly can you deliver that?’ but ‘how can I help you make best use of/free up your time?’, and they  value time for social interactions, downtime, reflection, enquiry, empathy and listening, in short all the behaviours that drive healthy, inclusive, people-centred work cultures.

The strategy of leaving the individual employee to thrive against the odds clearly isn’t working. Will your organisation be one that rises to this latest challenge or one that lags behind and pays the price? Be complacent at your peril, because time to act – for your people and for your business – is running out.


Written by Helen Beedham.
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Helen Beedham
Helen Beedham, MA Cantab, has spent 25 years working with HR and business leaders in knowledge-based organizations. Formerly a management consultant at Towers Watson then Director of Cityparents, she writes, speaks, and advises clients on creating inclusive, productive workplaces where individuals and teams can flourish.


Helen Beedham is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.