Does reducing your working hours show poor leadership?
Reduced working hours is an increasingly hot topic in the current climate. As employees reassess their work-life balance, businesses try to recoup costs and think tank, Autonomy, considers job creation options in the public sector, a 4-day week (or less) emerges as an attractive option.
The notion of a shorter working week can conjure the image of decreased productivity and effectiveness, which raises the questions:
Does reducing your hours equate to not pulling your weight at work?
Can you really reduce your hours without letting the rest of the team down?
For a long time, I believed I could only be an effective leader and team member if I worked extended days, 5 days a week and took work home at weekends. These were the unspoken ‘rules of the game’ and I told myself it was what I had to do to succeed.
Holding a senior leadership position where peers worked similar patterns, the idea of reduced work hours felt like career suicide.
UK Part-Time work trends
- In the last decade UK part-time working has risen by 10 million.
- By 2019, 8.96m of the UK workforce were working less than a 39-hour week.
- As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic the number of those working the “typical” work week is set to further reduce.
Of course, some sectors favour part-time working more than others. In my case, as a Royal Air Force Officer part-time working was simply not an option for most my career. I yearned for time to recharge, re-energise and regain balance, but the options were binary: serve Full Time or leave.
New ways of working… oh but wait
Then in 2017, the unexpected announcement of a flexible duties trial opened up a whole new range of possibilities. It presented a tantalising opportunity to finally have the lifestyle I wanted.
Enthused about the idea of a 4 day week, I did the sums. Working out I could afford the reduction in pay; I slowly began to realise part-time working could actually be a viable option.
Despite the prospect of working 4 days filling me with excitement it wasn’t long before my deeply held pre-conditioned beliefs and thinking kicked in.
“I am too senior to volunteer for this trial”.
“My peers will think I was a ‘slacker’”.
“I won’t deliver my in-year objectives”.
“I will let the team down”.
“I will be seen as unprofessional”.
“The world will collapse without me”.
But my motivation exceeded myself self-sabotaging fears. I was determined not to let unfounded inner dialogue hamper my chances of taking up an opportunity of a lifetime (literally). I knew I needed to reframe my mindset.
Reframing the leadership opportunity
As a first step, I started to consider the alternatives rather than focussing on my emerging negative perceptions. What would taking part in this trial mean for my leadership? What would it say about me? Thinking in this way gave me a whole new perspective.
- By doing this trial I would be setting a different example, demonstrating that reduced hours could be achieved by people at all levels of the organisation.
- If it worked, I might show that successful careers and more balanced lives are not mutually exclusive.
- My participation might inspire others to do the same.
- I would be informing future organisational policy decisions and a cultural organisational shift.
- I could be part of the long term solution to rising demand for different ways of working.
Asking the boss
Despite this shift in thinking, the conversation with my boss was still excruciating. I found myself squirming at admitting that I wanted to break the mould and do something different from the institutional norm. Old habits die hard.
It turns out the energy expanded worrying was completely wasted (isn’t it always?). Much to my surprise, the application breezed through both levels of approval.
My immediate line manager was brilliant and saw it as a chance to prove his own leadership. For years he strongly advocated prioritising family and now he had a tangible action to demonstrate his commitment to that sentiment.
Surprised continued further up the chain, where my request was seen as a positive demonstration of my moral courage.
It was far from the response I had expected. It seemed that the cultural change had already begun in a small pocket of the organisation.
Telling the team
If I thought asking my boss was hard, telling my team was worse.
Rarely lost for words and with a reputation for being a strong (but compassionate of course) boss, I found myself almost choking up when I ask the team to support my request.
Yet again, I was overwhelmed with the positive response.
From ‘the organisation needs to be able to absorb losses’ to ‘you have worked hard, you deserve it’, even ‘it will be nice and quiet without you’, the team wholeheartedly supported my decision.
So what was the result of this new way or working? Failure? Inefficiency? Total collapse of the free world as we know it?
Of course not. The surprising truth was that a 20% reduction in my annual working hours saw no decline in my output whatsoever.
On the contrary, as I gained a better work-life balance my stress levels decreased. I became a nicer person. I snapped less. I had time to listen and really hear my team, my family, my friends.
My decision-making sharpened as my mind cleared of clutter.
I led more authentically.
As for my effectiveness, I had the most productive year ever. Successfully juggling 2 jobs whilst conceiving, designing and delivering a major cost-saving project, I exceeded all my objectives.
But what of the team?
Much as it hurts my ego to admit, it seems I was not indispensable after all. With space to work without the boss breathing down their neck, interrupting their workflow with her ideas and priorities, the team thrived.
Fridays became a day of sanctuary where everyone caught up. Team members took on greater responsibility with new levels of empowerment and tasks needing my attention were simply rolled over to the following week.
Success all round.
Making it work
So how can you reduce working hours without trying to squeeze 5 days tasks into 4 and piling on the stress?
Uncovering ways to work smarter is key. Here are a just few examples of changes we made. You will no doubt think of many more.
- Refresh / create team strategy / framework / charter to set the direction of travel.
- Strictly prioritise work tasks (even more stringently than you already do).
- Scrutinise workflows across the team – reduce duplication, remove unnecessary bureaucracy.
- Stop resource-draining, low value-adding activities (we all have them).
- Withdraw attendance at non-essential meetings.
- Video call rather than physically attend meetings (obviously the new norm in the COVID 19 era).
- Focus and time-bound internal meetings (even try holding standing meetings to keep them short).
- Empower team members to make decisions without referring back to the boss.
- Tighten annual objectives and targets.
- Set clear individual responsibilities and boundaries.
- Instigate a clear workflow to expedite issues and concerns needing higher authorisation.
These changes created additional capacity within an already high performing team and led to further productivity gains.
Two years later, flexible service for the British military became UK law and I am proud to have been part of the policy evolution.
More importantly, what I took away from that experience was:
- A positive intent to do something (even if it is seemingly impossible) is the first step to making a dream happen.
- If you don’t ask you don’t get. It may sound a bit cliché but I could easily have listened to my inner fears, taken no action and missed the opportunity completely.
- Assumptions of how people will respond are almost always wrong.
- There are always multiple ways to reframe the story you are telling yourself.
- Retaining a better work-life balance can relieve stress and make you a better person all around (just ask my other half!)
I now love to help other successful professionals thrive at work AND still have a life. Find the courage to embrace change and live the life you REALLY want.
If you are interested in exploring how you could make that change, book a FREE no obligation discovery session
Photo credited to Elena Mozhvito @miracleday