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Leader Board

The cure for wasted time in the office

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Deep-wreck divers can have just 10 minutes of air time to explore. (UIG via Getty Images)

Deep-wreck divers can have as little as 10 minutes of air time to explore a site, making time management critical. (UIG via Getty Images)

When dive instructor Yarden Davis takes a group of tourists to the Naked Lady shipwreck in Hawaii, she has one big priority: time management.

The shipwreck, off the island of Kona, sits under 33.5 meters of water. That means divers have, at best, 10 minutes of air to explore the bottom. If Davis manages her time right, and conditions are perfect, she can use that time to show tourists a school of yellowtail snapper, the white-tip shark that frequents the wreck and the rainbow-coloured mantis shrimp that hide in the sand.

“You learn how to judge time after doing it for a while,” said Davis, who is from Israel but now lives in Hawaii and works at the Kona Diving Company. “You don’t even have to look at your watch to figure out how many minutes have passed and how much time you have left to explore.”

Imagine if managers were just as careful with their minutes and the time they ask of their employees. Imagine if all that time wasted in meetings or answering emails was instead dedicated to generating new ideas.

For some, this seems like a dream, particularly if they work for a company that ignores time management. But even if you can’t change a company’s organisational structure, you can free up time for the people who work for you, allowing them to do more work and even come up with new ideas.

Worse than expected

The problem with wasted time is perhaps worse than you think. Research released recently by US management consulting firm Bain & Co found that the average executive spends just a quarter of each week on actual work. Another quarter is spent on e-communications, like email or messaging, and a whopping half of their week is spent in meetings.

Self-help books are, well, little help.

“The problem with most tips on time management is they assume that you can, as an individual, make an impact on how you spend your time,” said Michael Mankins, a partner at Bain, from his office in San Francisco.

However, managers can reduce their own contributions to the culture of wasted time. Cancel regularly scheduled meetings where nothing gets done. Forbid meetings that last longer than 90 minutes or meetings that include more than seven people — unless they have their manager’s approval. Encourage your staff to cut down on unnecessary emails with short face-to-face exchanges or with email replies that go to only necessary recipients.

“You as a leader should almost never hit ‘reply all.’ You as a leader can be more selective about how you communicate,” Mankins said. “You can play a big role in how you think your organisation should treat time.”

Former Intel chief executive officer Andy Grove saw time as a company resource. “Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment,” Grove once wrote, “you shouldn’t let anyone walk away with the time of his fellow managers.”

Consider, too, that Grove’s appreciation of time could make his employees more productive, leading to a smaller and more lean staff.

Once you’ve figured out how to save your staff’s time, then you can figure out productive ways to reallocate it, said Oliver Som, senior researcher at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research.

Managers should carve out time each week, maybe as little as a couple of hours Friday afternoon, to reflect on the work done by staff — and themselves. They should also brainstorm new ideas for improvement.

“Many of these managers, they have lots and lots of ideas, and their innovations just get lost in the everyday business,” Som said from his office in Karlsruhe.

One of the core missions of the Fraunhofer Institute is to pair up firms that are productive, but aren’t generating new ideas, with companies that have healthy research and development. It often takes years to get such a collaboration to work, but in the end both can teach each other about how to better manage time with a balance between work and new ideas.

As a dive instructor, Davis needs to find a balance between the solitary nature of the sport versus her need to guide her group. She’ll try to nudge fellow divers toward the areas with more wildlife without being too obtrusive into their experience.

“You make every minute down there count, that’s for sure,” Davis said. “Any deep dive scenario is limited by time, and you want to make sure everyone uses the few minutes they have.”

Employ that logic in your office and you’re likely to build a more productive and creative workforce.

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