Midnight shift - Fennel's writing

Midnight Shift?

How much will you give to meet your next deadline? What will it cost? And for whose benefit? Take control to prioritise what's important when working in a deadline-driven environment.

The June 2016 edition of Harvard Business Review features a cover story about managing the high-intensity '24/7' workplace. It provides three strategies to cope with the phenomenon: Accepting, where you devote yourself completely to your work; Passing, where you pretend to be fully committed but still have a life; and Revealing, where you are open about prioritising your home life outside of normal working hours. But each strategy assumes a starting point where the employee is obligated to the whims of their employer. Because of this, the research misses the obvious: that not everyone is a slave to the system.

That said, I'm part of a special community of people who instinctively go above and beyond to win business. As a writer I've spent half of my life doing what's needed to meet a constant stream of deadlines and customer demands. I've worked through the night, worked weekends, cancelled holidays, and have even skipped Christmas lunch. At times it's been a sleepless, lifeless existence. But I've loved it from the start.

And it's taught me something that the Harvard Business Review has overlooked, that there's a fourth strategy – known as Control – where individuals know that their employment (and employer) serves them.

Whatever you do to earn your living, or to fuel your sense of identity and purpose, it's ultimately done to benefit you.

Your efforts and sacrifices are exchanged for something. There's a direct correlation between input and what you get back. The bright and confident individuals deploying the Control strategy know this. They maintain ownership of their lives. They stack the scales in their favour and let others know the terms of their engagement. With a strong work ethic, they're the ones who always ask "What's in it for me?", because they – and their employer – know that they'll deliver on their commitments. They negotiate time in lieu in advance of putting in the extra hours; they drive the flexitime and home-working agenda. Their starting point is that employment serves and funds their life goals.

Takes some guts, eh? Being this bold with one's employer? Maybe it requires a cultural shift – a realisation that we're often taking home less than minimum pay when we work all those extra hours for free – or a sense of maturity about what's important in life? Or maybe it's a case of not allowing ourselves to be conditioned to concede in the first place? 

The trend in this way of thinking is not driven by older generations, or even by employers. It's driven by the school-leavers and graduates of today who give their commitment to a company only for as long as it serves their needs. (Usually through the provision of training, experience, and career advancement.) Their loyalty is to themselves. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It drives discussions about job promotion and employment benefits; their impatience encourages change; and the relatively short bursts of interest and energy can be super-innovative and productive.

We know that 'magnesium flash' brilliance can only be sustained for short periods of time. What happens when the workload never eases and deadlines become more frequent?

Or when bad planning, or insufficient or unskilled resources, or inefficient working, or a desire to 'get it right', forces us to work longer and harder; or when subtle change dupes us into behaving differently? What happens when we just don't see the inevitability of our environment?

Back in 2009, when I was a recently promoted yet distinctly maverick manager, I was encouraged to attend a seminar about 'Attention Management'. I thought it would be a brow-beating about short attention spans and how to focus on the job at hand. But the message of the seminar soon became clear: that the notion of 'work-life balance' was redundant.

The reason, I was told, was due to the growing and relatively new trend in flexitime and virtual working. No longer did employees ring-fence their paid time from their leisure time. "Today, in the glittering world of limitless possibility and dazzling information superhighways," said the speaker, as I yawned, checked my smartphone, and wondered whether lunch was provided, "the employee is always on, always active, always accessible. Employers should exploit the fact that these workers are always available. Why? Because of the Trojan horse in their pocket."

Smartphones, as I learnt, had brought huge potential for increased productivity. Office workers could use them to send emails and access company Apps. And, when granted 'limited personal use' of the phone, they'd most-likely ditch their home phone and carry only the company one – keeping it switched on at all times in case of emergency calls. Of course, given the risk of abuse, they'd have to 'exercise discipline' in how they used it. (The irony being that discipline was mostly required to limit the amount of business work – such as checking emails and receiving texts and calls – during non-working hours, rather than using the device for making or receiving personal calls during work time.)

The speaker concluded with a message that, because the home and office environments had blurred, and people were always available, there was no longer any such thing as work-life balance. There was only 'attention management'. And as most employees seek to please their employer, they are easily programmed to adopt company ways of working.

What does this mean to us hard working and deadline driven stalwarts? That it takes courage to be different, discipline to manage the distractions, and a strong will to remain in control. We owe it to ourselves to invest in our own development, making time to read and reflect, to attend training courses and get further qualifications. To think more wisely.

We are always on. There will always be deadlines. Always the need to give more and work harder. But by maintaining control, we limit the impact of those environments and cultures where we're expected to do this as the norm.

We're the smartest creatures on the planet, but we're dumb when it comes to looking after Number One. It's too easy for us to prioritise something that matters less, if it provides the excuse for us not doing the right thing. Just because we're always on, doesn't mean that we're too busy to do what's important.

You're in control – so act upon it.

This is a sample chapter from The Lighter Side, Fennel's Journal No. 10

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