Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bodies in Buildings, Minds Elsewhere

It was Ratan Tata's comments on the work ethic in his British offices* that got me thinking - what is it that those of us who work really contribute to our companies, businesses and organizations? Our employers lure us with recognizable currencies - the promise of money, status, privilege, power and opportunity. But what is the coin in which we pay them back? Is it talent, ambition and energy? Is it loyalty and commitment, the willingness to serve as dedicated footsoldiers in corporate wars? Employers want all of this, of course, but I think that's just part of the answer. Increasingly, what they are seeking from us is our time.

There are organizations in which it is no longer enough to be punctual - to get to work on time, and to leave as per schedule. These companies will have you work 8 hours a day and demand that you work 10, and once you have worked 10 hours a day, they will demand that you work 12. They will encroach on your weekends and schedule company retreats to coincide with public holidays. This insistent intrusion is problematic, but at least it's direct. Any employee knows what he or she is up against. And there are other ways to consume an employee's time that are more insidious. Companies 'free' their people from their work-spaces by giving them laptops and cell-phones, guaranteeing accessibility that comes disguised as mobility. Other office cultures implicitly require one to spend time socializing with colleagues after work. They will encourage you mull things over after (or before) work, to just 'check in' every once in a while when on holiday.

Most people seem to agree on that fact that one should work hard, and work intelligently. Very few people  will ever say (or admit), that an employee should get away with making a bare minimum, or even a functional effort. But when it comes to time - everyone has a different point of view. Some people think it's best to throw yourself into work, others will say that you have no obligation whatsoever to be available on weekends, on holidays, or even after 6. There are people who will fight to preserve their weekends, and there are those who will shrug off the working Saturday.

The one constant that emerges from all these strains is that one's attitude to time spent at work, often seems to define one's attitude towards work itself. But why does time - as opposed to variables such as effort and talent - seem to be the definitive marker of a person's relationship with their work? I suppose it's because time is fundamentally scarce, and in our increasingly crowded and complex lives, it becomes difficult to apportion time satisfactorily among all its claimants - friends, family, errands, hobbies, oneself. How we spend our time is an indication of we prioritize things.

It's no small surprise then, that corporate-speak has evolved an entire lexicon around time - time-management, flexi-time, work-life balance, 4-hour-work-weeks. There are seminars and books telling us how to allocate our time well. Employers, especially in India, equate time with attention and commitment, and time spent at work serves as tangible proof of both these precious commodities.

Notice that I used the qualifier 'serves as.' Because time dedicated to work often stands in for nothing other than itself.

Employees have elevated time-management into a performance art. They will write e-mails at 9 PM but send them out at 11.30. They will linger long over their PCs, reading and watching whatever catches their fancy and hasn't been blocked. They will drape jackets over their chairs to indicate they are in the building, but will have actually wandered off for lunch. They will go for spontaneous market visits and client meetings, and will fill out time-sheets and expense reports for both. They will get colleagues to swipe them into the office well before they get there. There are those who will do what it takes to get the job done well, and on schedule - but when everyone is staying back late, who is to notice the difference?

Time is contested terrain. Employers are right - people will do what it takes to get ahead. But they tend to forget that people cheat, especially when they are being asked to part with something that there is little enough of already. It takes an enlightened and mature employer to distinguish between time, effort and truly valuable contributions. Commitment and dedication are elusive - they can only be earned. Very few organizations understand that by insisting that their people work late, they are only keeping bodies in the building. Minds are most likely wandering, somewhere far away.

* Read the Indian coverage here and the original story here.

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