How to Defeat Busy Culture

October 02, 2020

How to Defeat Busy Culture

At home and at work, “busy” culture worsens the problems it promises to solve. It’s natural to assume that the busier we are, the bigger the impact we’ll be able to make — but in reality, studies have shown that busy culture destroys productivity and pulls us away from both our families and deeper relationships with our coworkers.

Like all work cultures, busy culture starts at the top, with leaders who want to appear successful, important, and productive. But what makes it so tough to overcome is that it also has roots at the bottom, where junior employees compete to stand out as hard workers eager to contribute and move up.

And then, of course, there’s the problem of how porous our work-life boundaries have become, thanks to the proliferation of technologies that make it possible to work and connect with one another from anywhere, at any time.

So what can leaders do to combat a toxic culture of busyness? There’s no easy answer, but here are three strategies that can help:

Incentivise boundary-setting. Busy culture has to be fought with unquestionable company commitment. Praising employees and awarding them extra time off is a good start, but those measures can often come across as token gestures. What works better, it turns out, is paying people to be less busy.

That may sound radical, but paying people to work less is an appropriate solution for what has become a serious problem. More than four-fifths of employees send work emails on weekends. Nearly six in 10 do so while on vacation, and more than half check email after 11 PM.

These are problematic behaviours if you’re worried about the health, satisfaction, and productivity of your employees. The good news is, they’re also behaviours that managers can easily track and use to promote boundary-setting.

One tech company, FullContact, has been doing this for years. Employees can earn a $7,500 annual vacation stipend by following three simple rules: No checking work messages, no working, and no staying home (although recently, staycations have also qualified). Referred to internally as a “paid, paid vacation,” the stipend is enforced through a combination of vacation photo-sharing, communication channel monitoring, and self-reporting.

A few years after launching the program, the company’s communications director, Brad McCarty, told the Washington Post that the program was working “incredibly well,” adding that when employees returned from these vacations they were “shining brighter, working harder, and more excited to get back into the swing of things.”

Another popular approach is to structure vacations as paid sabbaticals. In 2011, just 4% of employers offered paid sabbaticals. By 2017, more than four times as many employers did.

Because unused sabbatical time doesn’t have to be paid out when the term of employment ends, companies are able to offer more generous policies if they treat that time as a sabbatical rather than a vacation. In addition, especially in the academic sphere, sabbaticals are a culturally accepted way to take time for personal development not directly related to work. Reframing vacations as sabbaticals may help employees feel less stigma around taking time off.

Focus on your core contribution. Countering busy culture means saying “no” to tasks that don’t align with your primary duties — and leaders have to set that example. Until the rest of your team sees you saying “no” to secondary duties, they won’t feel comfortable doing so either.

Do you enjoy downtime when you get it, or do you fill it with less-than-critical work? Do you abandon side projects — which are only useful insofar as they serve your core focus — early and often? Does everybody you work with know what your primary duties are? Even employees you don’t work directly with should know what those duties are and recognize your commitment to them.

On this front, too, a radical approach is often the most effective. In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, the leadership strategist Greg McKeown argues that to combat busy culture and create a healthier and more productive work environment, leaders should say “yes” to only the top 10% of the tasks presented to them. Show through your actions that your core duties are your priority, and make saying “no” to other work the norm.

That’s the approach that the co-founder of CD Baby, Derek Sivers, has adopted. “If it’s not a ‘hell, yeah,’” he says, “it’s a ‘no.’” Sivers understands that it’s not bad opportunities that can kill his business but mediocre ones.

Lean on lateral and external influencers. Culture is built informally, interaction by interaction. But no single individual can change the culture of a large organisation alone. What works to effect change is positive peer pressure, exerted by social connections rather than top-down directives.

Consider how Ben & Jerry’s finally got workers to use its nap rooms. At first, people were so embarrassed about using them that they would use phoney names like “Donald Duck” on the signup sheet. After removing the signup sheet, Ben & Jerry’s realised a simpler system could still show everyone that the rooms were being used without revealing individual users’ identities: “If the door is closed,” a spokesperson explained, “you know it is being used.” Although rooms can no longer be booked in advance, Ben & Jerry’s realized the higher priority was making everyone feel comfortable using them in the first place.

Similarly, the founder of Gabb Wireless, Stephen Dalby, who I met while working in the nonprofit world, struggled to put his phone down after work until his 6-year-old son asked a cutting question: “Daddy, can we play a game — or is your phone too important?” Despite founding Gabb to help young people spend less time on screens, Stephen struggled to turn off “business mode.” To combat this culture in himself and his team, he encouraged employees to establish small, daily traditions like device-free dinners — and he talked about those dinners at work, reminding his people that healthy boundary-setting was the norm.

All companies get busy. The trick is to keep that busyness from becoming chronic and cultural, because when that happens, it also becomes corrosive — no matter how productive or positive it may seem.



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This article was originally written by Serenity Gibbons, a managing partner at SPG Consultants LLC, which helps growing companies build healthy work cultures. Her clients include Salesforce, Dell, and Oracle. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article earlier this year. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.

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