(This column originally appeared in The Guardian)
You know what the worst thing about working for someone else is? It’s wasting your time.
Many years ago I worked at a small pharmaceutical company. I did a lot of time-wasting. I was a senior accountant and I reported to the company’s chief financial officer. He was very old school. My hours were from 8am to 6pm and I was expected to always be at or near my desk during that period. My boss also worked the same hours, sometimes even longer. He stayed until the CEO left for the day, and it was expected that I would stay until he left for the day.
Was I busy? Sure, most of the time. But there were also plenty of times when I wasn’t. Times I could have left work much earlier and spent time with my family. This was in the 1990s so there wasn’t the internet. We had phones and I could easily stay in touch. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the culture of the company — and certainly not a consideration for my boss. So instead I had to spend countless days hanging around the office, literally twiddling my thumbs while my wife and very young children were at home as I waited for my boss to clock out for the day. What a waste of time.
Times have changed.
That’s according to workplace author Minda Zetlin, who recently pointed out that despite a reduction in work hours reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employers continue to retain their workers, and are even looking to add. She believes companies are still recovering from the lack of employees as a result of the pandemic and are even hoarding employees. But the main reason behind this trend, she believes, is that more employers are recognizing the importance of their employees’ work-life balance.
“Making time to rest and have a good life outside work actually leads to greater productivity and more achievement than if you spend endless hours at your desk,” she writes on Inc.com.
People who know me know I have little patience for lazy, complaining, “quiet-quitting” workers, not just because their attitude negatively affects the efforts of their employer, but by behaving this way — regardless of the reason — they create significant challenges for themselves. Leaders want to surround themselves with hard workers who take pride in putting in whatever effort is required to get the job done. These are the people who succeed in their jobs and in their lives.
But I remember sitting around that office “working” when work wasn’t really necessary. My performance suffered each day I was forced to do this. If my boss had allowed me to spend more time with my family when things were slow I wouldn’t have been so miserable spending time at work when things were really busy. If he had recognized the importance of my work-life balance he would have had a much more productive and happier employee. The result? I left that job after two years and started my own little business. And I’ve been practicing what Zetlin has been preaching.
I don’t ask my workers to account for their hours. I don’t even have standard office hours for my business. All I care about is that they get their work done. If our clients are happy, I’m happy. If I try to reach a worker and they’re not immediately available, I’m good with a response back in a reasonable amount of time. As a service business — and like most service businesses — I make my money on billable hours. But I don’t impose quotas. I leave the decisions as to when and where to work up to my workers. They’re adults. They know their responsibilities.
And looking back at my time at the pharmaceutical company, I realize that’s why I was so unhappy. I wasn’t treated like an adult. I was forced to be somewhere even when I didn’t need to be there because my boss didn’t trust me to do my job otherwise. That lack of trust was the reason why I left. And because I don’t treat my workers this way my business has had very little turnover. People are happy.
The workday has changed and the workplace is different. The number of hours your employees work in a week is meaningless. What’s important is that they’re doing their jobs and providing your company value. Have that attitude and you’ll have a more profitable business — and happier employees.