Pitsurfing and Highly Effective People

After almost a year’s break, I have recently been doing a lot of (high value, obvs) consulting work for a few really ambitious agency owners in London. Having had plenty of time away, I’ve had a shock reminder of the daily commute. I live within walking distance of the Northern Line, so my days recently have involved a good number of tube (subway) journeys in order to get to my clients dotted around the city.

The horrible reality of commuting is that too many workers are stuffed into outdated carriages, with briefcases pressed into buttocks, tall folks’ necks bent, women buttressing smelly armpits (at best), and having to put up with the coughing and sneezing you just know will turn into the sniffles you don’t want for the weekend. This pitsurfing nightmare is the norm for anyone who has a nine to five(-thirty) in one of the busiest and most productive cities on earth.

And yet as I arrive at my various destinations, what strikes me is the fact that people who want to get the most of their day simply don’t join in. The CEOs and boards I work for are at work well in advance, or start much later. With the days of driving in to the office pretty much passé, a calculation has been made that transmutes the old excuse of the fat cats (“I drive because I can’t afford to get flu”) into one that can, actually, be justified: “I get in early so I have an hour before it gets busy to get my work done undisturbed.”

And this seems to happen at every level of the organisation. The effective people are the ones who crack their workload either before the working bell curve or after it, getting in at 8am or leaving at 7pm.

Back in the 1970s my father used to leave home at 6am and get home at 4. That meant he actually grew up with his kids – the three of us had constant contact with our dad because, well, he was around for our childhood. That was his sole excuse. It had side benefits – he was highly productive, and very effective; he delegated stuff upwards and downwards fantastically well, partly because he wasn’t around for people to bounce things back his way; and when mum wanted an evening out he was free to pick us all up from school.

This mode of time management with benefits was highly unusual in the ‘70s, but it’s not any more. In Sweden there are controlled trials under way to see if the six-hour working day measurably produces more efficiency. The theory goes that staff knowing that they have the same workload will just find more efficient or effective ways of getting it done in the shorter number of hours. There won’t be the post-3.30 motivational die-off that happens at every eight-hour office – no more dreading the commute or the retreat to the pub to get drunk mid-week, no more Facebook afternoons or marking time until the figurative bell goes. (The oft-cited standard bearer of this is Toyota, which switched to this ten years ago and, because of immediate profitability gains, has stuck with it ever since.)

In one of my agencies, Head New Media (which became the digital arm of Lowe), every employee was given a day a week for personal creative projects – and as a result not only was the culture fantastic, more work got done in the remaining four days, and Head became the world’s most awarded digital creative agency.

I was recently involved with Vint Cerf’s and David Nordfors’ Innovation for Jobs (i4j) Forum at the House of Lords. One of the clear outputs was that as technology enables employment flexibility (and in fact will increasingly demand it), building real effectiveness in people means playing to their strengths and preferences. I think this is the way forwards. By providing intangible incentives for staff like comfortable commutes, higher efficiency working environments, reduced stress at work, even fewer coughs and colds, CEOs will have more productive companies. They’ll also have people who look forward to their journeys at work, instead of dreading their journeys to work. This makes for improved staff engagement, retention and culture. It means people who get time with their families or time to relax with their friends. Effective leaders use flexible thinking to develop highly effective people. Pitsurfing is a nightmare, and it should be put to pasture.

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