The Twenty Minute Difference: A Case Study in Manager Flexibility

Managers – What are you thinking?

I have a great deal of respect for Managers. I know how tough it is to be one – I was there for many years.  Juggling the pressures of the job and managing people, who all have their own personalities, development desires, work habits, and expectations is one huge difficult task. As rewarding as it can often be, it is a big, big job.

Yet often times I cannot believe how foolish some managers can be, and how inept they are at building an environment of high productivity and trust.

But I have to say that I also am thinking, “Come on, people. Does this really make sense?”

A new client shared with me the primary reason she is looking for another job.

Before I tell you why, let me offer a bit of context.

My client, let’s call her Janice, has been working for EnergyAlive (fictitious name) for over eight years, and has been promoted three times into a Manager position. She is very well-liked, very smart, and has received consistently high performance ratings. (That’s why she was promoted).

So, what’s the problem?   

A new Director (Mason) recently came on board into the company. Within a few weeks, all of a sudden, everything changed. There is a problem.

Janice wants out – NOW.  She is seriously looking for another job.

Why is something that was going so right, all of a sudden going so wrong?

  Janice has a young son, John. John attends kindergarten nearby and goes to   after school care so that Janice can pick him up at 5:00pm every day after she leaves work.

Janice’s previous Director had given her the flexibility to leave 20 minutes early each day so that she could reach the daycare center on time to pick up her son. Janice usually took shorter lunches and was a hard worker so it all worked out.

Janice was grateful because it often took up to an hour, with traffic, to reach the daycare center. She greatly appreciated her Director’s faith in her to get the job done even though she had to leave a little early. She worked hard to show that appreciation.

Mason arrives as the new Director. He is gung-ho to “make his mark”.

Mason has a different idea of what the “rules” are.   

In plain English, Mason doesn’t believe in flexibility. He has laid down the law that Janice must stay at work until 4:30pm just as her hours dictate.

Janice now has a new worry every day – a big one. If she can’t make it to the daycare center by 5:00pm, she gets charged for an extra two hours because the daycare manager wants to close up at 5:00.

So what is happening?  Janice is stressed out every day. She rushes into her car and drives (perhaps a bit too fast) to get to the daycare center as quickly as possible – and rarely makes it on time. So along with the added stress, Janice also now has a much bigger daycare bill.

Janice now has a chip on her shoulder about the company (and Mason).  Are you surprised?

What used to be a very productive and positive relationship between Janice and EnergyAlive, has all of a sudden become a very tense and negative one.

I see this as Penny Wise and Pound Foolish.

No, I take that back. I don’t even see this as Penny WiseIt is just plain foolish.

  • EnergyAlive has already lost an excellent employee. Janice will be gone soon. She has excellent skills and can bring those skills elsewhere.
  • Janice knows the company (and its customers) very well.  She used to have respect for EnergyAlive and its services, and really put in 110% effort to do a good job. Not anymore. Why should she care about them when they don’t care about her?
  • It will cost EnergyAlive several thousand dollars to hire and retrain and onboard a new manager to take Janice’s place. Usually this takes up to 8 months or more. There will be lost time and perhaps a big slip in customer service.
  • Janice’s co-workers know what’s going on and are also ticked off. They feel for Janice and can’t understand why Mason can’t be reasonable. It doesn’t bother them that Janice used to leave 20 minutes early. They like having her as their manager. She treats them with respect.
  • Mason is standing firm, because he doesn’t want to ‘lose face’. (He doesn’t realize he has already lost it)

Have you seen these types of situations arise? Have you been involved in one? It’s quite amazing how a change in the Director position has created such a negative impact on the employees and the company within a few short weeks.

Where is HR? Is anyone paying attention?  Who is coaching Mason that he may be establishing a reputation in the company that might eventually cause his derailment?  What’s fair? What’s reasonable?  What makes sense?

Twenty minutes of flexibility. Is this too much to ask?

Important things to think about.

As a manager and leader – how will YOU handle these issues?

A report by Sodexo (has approximately 125,000 employees in North America alone) in 2012 shows employers need to think beyond the business and outside the traditional office setting to create an engaged, productive workforce*.

*2012 Workplace Trends Report: Integration, Flexibility and Wellness Top Drivers of Employee Engagement *

“…Because recession or not, the U.S. still has a skilled worker shortage.  As the economy picks up and the boomers finally do retire, it is only going to get a whole lot worse.  Companies that get ahead and build real cultures of workplace flexibility are going to have the staffing advantage and the competitive edge.

“Flex is no longer an ’employee benefit’.  Those days are gone.  Today it is an all-around public policy issue and bottom-line corporate strategy.”

Sodexco’s research predicts continued focus on well-being and the ability to deliver a unique value proposition to business communities that focuses on not only integrated, effective and efficient use of space, but also the performance of human capital. Employees are looking to organizations for tools and resources to help them simplify their lives, stay healthy and balanced, and bring their “whole self” to work as these continue to be top drivers of engagement.”

Terry Del Percio is a Career Transition and Workplace Consultant based out of Beverly, MA. Follow her on Twitter at @WorkIntegrity or visit her website at www.workstrategies.com  

The Doorbell is Dead

This blog is an excerpt by Ed Muzio,
Author of Make Work Great: Supercharge Your Team, Reinvent the Culture, and Gain Influence — One Person at a Time

Literally, my doorbell is dead. It’s one of those battery operated wireless ones. I think it got some water in it, and it doesn’t work. Plus, my front door is fifteen feet behind a locked gate, so there’s no way to knock. Conventional wisdom says, if you drop by my house unannounced, you’re not getting in. It’s been this way for over a year and it has yet to be a problem.

I should perhaps be embarrassed by this, but I recently realized why it really doesn’t matter, while giving a friend a ride across town. When my car stopped in front of our destination — a relative’s house — my friend stepped out of the car, thanked me, and immediately initiated a cell phone call. As she was putting her phone away, the front door cracked open and she strolled in, carefree user of the new-age doorbell.

That’s why nobody has yet complained about mine: nobody uses it anyway! Figuratively as well, the doorbell is dead. And its death has bigger implications to our daily lives than many of us care to consider.

There’s a reason we call this the information age, and it’s not because we’re all so much smarter. It’s because we all have access to so much information, at our fingertips, all the time. I can track my package, check the status of my flight, and monitor my stock portfolio or my company’s financial status, all in a second, all with a click. I’m more informed than anyone in my position in history has ever been. And yet, being so informed has not made my life easier. If anything, I think I’m probably busier than a counterpart in my position would have been 20 years ago.

For one thing, I’m constantly doing things like checking the status of my packages and my flights! That didn’t used to be an option, but now that it is, it seems foolish not to avail myself of it. Why in the world would I choose to be uninformed, when it’s so easy to rectify my ignorance by learning exactly which city my all-important box is traversing at the moment?

Worse yet, everyone now has the expectation of immediacy. At times it feels like I’m fielding client questions and queries day and night, all of whom expect an instant answer. I pride myself on customer service, but it can be a challenge! If you supplement “client” with “customer,” “manager,” or “stockholder,” I’ve probably described your job too.

And it’s not just business contacts. Some loved ones have also come to expect an instantaneous reply when they call. I vividly recall a time when I returned calls to friends and family after I got home for the evening, or if it was a particularly long day, the following evening. Now, the calls come into my cell phone at all hours. If I don’t respond within a few hours, I end up on the receiving end of a concerned and vaguely annoyed follow-up call: “didn’t you get my message? I thought you would call me back over lunch.”

The problem is, my capacity for handling information has not expanded commensurately with the information explosion. I still have only two hands, only two ears, only two eyes, and only one brain. I may read a few hundred more emails per day than I used to, but I don’t read them a few hundred times faster. And my decision-making capacities still have limits as to how much information they can incorporate. For better or worse, I’m still just human.

And you, my friend, are in the same boat as I am. Admit it! You haven’t grown four extra hands or two extra brains either.

That’s why it’s crucial for all of us to walk around with a well rehearsed script of what’s we’re trying to do, what I call a Verbalized Summary Objective Statement, or VSO. The VSO is a script that you play to others, and to yourself, as a reminder of what you’re working on.

It’s also a filter that helps you turn on — or turn off — your most important sources of information. And, it’s a statement of your output that you can use at the end of the day to check that you’re making progress. If you are, you can feel satisfaction. If you’re not, you can make an adjustment. Either of those options is preferable to just going home exhausted, vaguely wondering when you started working so hard, and why you can’t seem to stop.

Tomorrow morning, when you first get to your desk and before you start doing anything, see if you can articulate your purpose for the day, or maybe the week, in about 90 seconds. Try writing it down, or better yet, say it to yourself a few times until you’ve memorized it. Then, use your little infomercial as your blueprint for the day. Whenever you’re about to engage with information — either a source of it, or a request for it — first check the contents of your VSO, and see how that source or request aligns with what you really want to be doing. In other words, pay attention to where you invest your mental and physical effort.

Probably, like me, you’ll find that not all of what is clamoring for your attention is in line with your own priorities. Although saying “no” is never easy, it is much easier when you have a burning “yes” to focus upon instead. Now that you know where you’re trying to head, you can begin to make the difficult decisions about what not to do. From here, the rest is up to you.

Actually, I do have one more suggestion. As you go through the day sorting through information, take a moment to check your calendar. If your evening plans include a visit to my house, be sure to take my cell phone number with you.
© 2010 Ed Muzio, author of Make Work Great: Supercharge Your Team, Reinvent the Culture, and Gain Influence — One Person at a Time

Author Bio
Edward G. Muzio
is president and CEO of Group Harmonics and is the award-winning author of Four Secrets to Liking Your Work: You May Not Need to Quit to Get the Job You Want. An expert in workplace improvement and its relationship to individual enjoyment, Muzio has been featured on Fox Business Network, CBS, and other national media, and he has been cited in many publications including the New York Post, the Austin American Statesman, and Spirit magazine. He lives in Albuquerque, NM.

For more information visit www.makeworkgreat.com and follow the author on Facebook.

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Your Mobile Phone: A Tool for Mindfulness

I am sure you have heard the term ‘mindfulness’. It is tossed about frequently these days. I’m glad of that, since it seems the idea is making its way into the mainstream. That’s a good thing, in my humble eyes.

Mindfulness refers to being completely in touch with the present moment, as well as taking a non-evaluative and non-judgmental approach to your inner experience.

For example, a mindful approach to one’s inner experience is simply viewing “thoughts as thoughts” as opposed to evaluating thoughts as positive or negative. http://bit.ly/9rxspw

Mindfulness plays a central role in the teaching of Buddhist meditation. Buddhism is a philosophy that began in India in the 6th century and is becoming increasingly accepted in western culture.

Although Dr. David Rock wrote in Psychology Today that he has a problem with mindfulness being linked to any religion, because he worries that people will ignore it simply for that reason, his piece is full of useful information and I encourage you to take a peek.

Dr. Rock believes that as we get older, we resist learning new things. I’m not sure I agree, but his blog is definitely worth reading, especially if you are interested in the health benefits of mindfulness.

The best statement in Dr. Rock’s post is that ‘even the most cynical, anti-self-awareness agitator can’t help but see that they will be better off practicing this skill (mindfulness)’.

Okay – since I believe that we become more open-minded as we get older, let me briefly introduce the idea of Buddhism. Are you with me?

The Buddha, many centuries ago, identified Four Noble Truths as the foundation of this spiritual practice.

See if you can relate to any of these Four Noble Truths.

1. Life is full of suffering

2. Craving and desire is the cause of suffering.

3. Craving and desire can come to an end, therefore ending our suffering

4. The way to end suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration

This is a lot to digest at one sitting. So let’s just focus on one small aspect.

To practice Right Livelihood means to use the practice of mindfulness to address the problems of daily life, including work.

Take telephone meditation, for example.  This can be a very important practice for you, if you’ll try it.

When the phone rings (yes, even your mobile phone), try hearing it as a bell of mindfulness. Are you giggling yet? Experiencing some discomfort at the thought of a new perspective?

Stop what you are doing and breathe in and out deeply and consciously three times before you pick up the phone.

Alert: I bet this will be very difficult for you to do. Please tell me if you can do it the next time the phone rings.

If you choose to practice this, I wonder if your phone calls will take on a different tone. What do you think?

I’m curious to hear how you do.

My Way or the Highway: Oh, Really?

Marsha is an incredibly talented business development executive. She’s an independent thinker and a real go-getter. She makes things happen.

Marsha has put together complex multi-million dollar deals that involve the government, global utility companies, private industry etc. On top of all that, she is highly experienced and savvy in the alternative energy industry space.

Marsha was recently recruited into a well-positioned alternative energy start-up. They pursued her with a vengeance because of her reputation and industry knowledge.

The VP advocated strongly for hiring her and fought to make an exception to the “standard” offer. They considerably jacked up the base salary and incentive structure to make it happen. Everything fell into place – Marsha received an incredibly lucrative offer.

Sounds like a happy story, right?

Well… there has been a new development. Marsha has been there for six weeks. When I spoke to her, the first sentence out of her mouth was “I’ve got a big problem here. I’m not sleeping and I find myself experiencing a lot of anxiety. My gut is telling me there is something very wrong.”

What was the problem? Here is the down and dirty.

  • Boss assumes everyone is available until all hours of the night and sends emails expecting an immediate response.

[By the way, Marsha has a full personal life with many family responsibilities and community interests]

  • Boss believes in the traditional method of volume calls to create qualified leads and wants to see the ‘numbers’ every day. He sees business development as sales.

[By the way, Marsha has a different style of developing business with a focus on relationships that build over time. Her approach has led to numerous multi-million dollar deals.}

  • Boss is hyperactive and often rude, pointing at people (including Marsha) and publicly saying he wants to see MORE, MORE, MORE and FASTER, FASTER, FASTER.

[By the way, Marsha expects to be treated with respect, just as she treats all of her colleagues, and feels insulted by the way the boss is communicating.]

There’s more, but you get the picture.

The bottom line is that unless the boss changes his communication style and becomes more open-minded about how his staff gets the work done, he is going to lose a very talented person, and fast.

Who really loses?  I say the organization loses in the long run.  If Marsha could bring in a couple of multi-million dollar deals within a year, is it worth losing her because she has a different approach?

Patty Inglish noted in a short piece entitled “Top Ten Reasons Why Employees Quit” that the reasons most people quit their jobs include:

a) Lack of autonomy and respect

b) Health problems or burnout

(note: the article is from 2007 but is still applicable)

In this economy there aren’t too many blogs being written about employees quitting their jobs because so many fear being unemployed.  But don’t let that fear fool you. When talented people feel unreasonably pushed and not respected, they’ll leave as soon as they can.

Marsha has a responsibility in this situation too. She needs to communicate what the problem is in a way that doesn’t put the boss in a defensive stance and allows them both to see the benefit of working this out. But not at the expense of her health or her family.

The boss has more “organizational power” but Marsha has personal power…she is ready to walk because she is confident that she can take her talents elsewhere.  I would bet that Marsha is right.

Leaders, listen up: Assess your tendency to take the  “My way or the highway” approach. In the end, you could be biting off your nose to spite your face.

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Have you ever been in a situation like this? What was your experience? I’d love to hear from both leaders and employees.

Please leave your comments by clicking on the “Leave a Comment” phrase written below (in very small print). Thanks for reading.

Work Stress: The Elephant in the Room

As the New Year begins, I am hoping for a renewed emphasis on addressing work-related stress.

In this post, I both applaud and raise questions about how organizations are taking steps to reduce stress and the negative impact it is having on American workers and their families.

I admire the work that the Center for Work Life Policy does.  Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit think tank, where she leads the “Hidden Brain Drain” Task Force.

In a recent online article she wrote for Forbes.com, Sylvia mentions that the pressures of the recession are having a measurable effect on the physical health and mental well being of many workers.

I don’t think this is shocking news to anyone; but it is important to keep talking about it. Work related stress is a problem of epidemic proportions.

Although Sylvia tends to focus on data that comes from vice presidents and managing directors (what she calls the “Cream of the Crop”), I believe that these stress-related trends impact all workers.

After all, workers at every level are getting hit with pressure to do more with less and to work so many hours that their personal lives are imposed upon. I hear this from my clients every day and my clients represent a broad range of people from executives to project managers to technical writers to health care workers.

The Forbes.com article gives examples of the how stress is not only causing illness, but likely causing negative dynamics within families,

…as they [workers] deal with brutal hours in tension-filled offices, many high performers can’t prevent the strains at work from spilling over into their home lives causing ill temper and spawning squabbles.

Sylvia mentions what some smart companies are doing to try to break the vicious cycle of stress. Indeed, these ideas are not earth shattering, yet they are worth repeating.

One interesting example came from an EVP & Corporate Comptroller at American Express (AXP). Her name is Joan.

In the spirit of getting at the real issues, I’d like to challenge a few of the ideas. Read on.

Joan’s AMX group developed a four-part initiative to reduce stress (listed below). I’ve added my take to each. See what you think and let me know your thoughts.

Step One: Everyone had to be on their way home by 6:30 pm

My take: This seems reasonable enough – I like the idea of an expectation that everyone will go home at a reasonable hour. Yet I wonder about those people who have children or family members that need care. Do they have flexibility to leave earlier on some days or work from home sometimes? Is there an unspoken “rule” of staying until 6:30 pm?

Step Two: No emails after 8 pm

My take: At first glance, I applaud this idea. I know too many people (including myself) who work on email until the wee hours of the morning.  But WAIT – 8pm?  Is there an unspoken assumption here that one must be accessible until 8 pm every night?  So I should leave the office by 6:30 p.m. but I also will be on email until 8 p.m. When does the family have dinner? When do I talk with my kids and hug my partner?

Hmmm…just wondering about the unspoken messages here.

Step Three: No email on weekends or vacations.

My take: Sounds good. Vacation time is crucial for rejuvenation and accessing new and creative ideas.

Step Four: When you take vacation or personal time, you have to delegate authority.

My take: Makes sense. Of course this is important, but I also need to have the resources to be able to delegate to.  If my staff is completely stretched like taffy already, my delegating to them may create an unreasonable workload for them to manage. This “delegation” idea is smart on the surface, but it may not be achievable in reality.  Remember, everyone is supposed to go home by 6:30pm and stop emails at 8:00pm too.

And what about those people who don’t have anyone to delegate to? There are plenty of people who manage projects but don’t have a staff. What is the protocol for them? How do they delegate?

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Let’s keep generating good ideas about managing work-related stress. It’s a big step to talk about it and generate new ways of handling the negative consequences.

However, we must also be open to looking at our approach with an open mind.  Are we still perpetuating the vicious cycle with unspoken messages? Are we asking the right questions? Is it “safe” for anyone to raise these issues or is it taboo?  Will the worker who says “this isn’t working” be frowned upon?  How much freedom is given to each employee to determine and live by their own boundaries?

Can we acknowledge the elephants in the room?

After all, if you want great employees to stick around when the economy starts moving forward again, it’s wise to think about this. Otherwise, they will be out the door quicker than you can turn on your blackberry once more jobs are available.