Working 9-5 is not how we make a living anymore

May 31st, 2022
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Adam Craker, CEO at IQbusiness

Earlier this month, Microsoft revealed an alarming shift in how professional and office workers are managing their work. This shift, dubbed “the rise in the triple peak workday” first developed during the massive lifestyle changes compelled by the Covid-19 lockdowns and work from home orders. But it appears here to stay as leaders across businesses and government navigate the ‘now normal’ management challenges of their human capital.

According to Microsoft data, prior to the pandemic, productivity amongst professionals and office workers peaked at two key times: just before and just after the traditional lunch break. Now, a third peak productivity period has emerged: the late evening is when more and more of us are returning to work.

Early during the pandemic, data from Microsoft Teams showed an expansion of the traditional 9-5 work day into the evening hours. Those of us lucky enough to have been employed throughout can recall how we, overnight, had to juggle home schooling, increased household responsibilities, restrictions on exercise and movement, and limited access to amenities – while managing the stress of working full time during a pandemic. Once the sun set on a frantic day, we finally had a quiet moment to devote to thoughtful work.

And Microsoft’s most recent data, including that on keyboard usage, shows that this trend has continued beyond the pandemic. Many of the individual working day shifts that were made from March 2020 have stuck.

How we tackle our working day has undeniably changed, and all leaders should be grappling with what changes should stay, what should be tweaked, and what should be left in 2020 along with the arduous and unnecessary washing of groceries.

SA leaders and executives can future proof their growth by ensuring they build retention, succession and advancement into all their human capital plans and actions. This means that the leaders of today must ensure that they have lined up their replacements and that the young talent they nurture is more motivated and better than they were at the same point in their career – or the organisation will not move forward.

That requires a very different approach than when many of today’s CEOs and Director-Generals rose through the ranks. Now, we are juggling vastly different priorities and challenges across multiple generations. We’ve all seen tongue-in-cheek memes about stereotypical differences between stoic boomers (the ‘silent generation’ born between 1946 and 1964) and zoomers (or generation Z, born in the mid to late 1990s). But CEOs who ignore the unique motivators of younger generations will do so at their peril. More and more, we are all being driven by a desire to do work with meaning and purpose.

In my interactions with people across generational divides, in the private and public sector, we are united in our desire to know that we’ve made a difference. We want to know that we’ve played our part in slowing climate change, that we’ve developed a solution to a pervasive problem, and that we’ve made a positive impact on our world for future generations.

And we have the opportunity now to integrate our quest for purpose into every aspect of our lives. We can do so using the myriad tools and solutions that have subtly appeared in the virtual offices that we occupy today, which free our human capital up to do more meaningful work that matters.

For the first time in 15 years, I have been working without an Executive Assistant – managing my own diary, emails, plans. I have revelled in an experiment to utilise Microsoft’s artificial intelligence (AI) tools Cortana and Viva to organise my work. Not only are these tools highly effective, I have realised that the role of an executive assistant has fundamentally evolved. Just a few years ago, an EA was absolutely essential to manage a complex schedule and board demands. Today, the AI tools that are freely available means that a lot of this work can be quickly dispensed with, and the role and activities of an EA are very different to those needed in the past. The astute abilities to organise and manage complex tasks, previously distinctive of a high-performing EA, can and should be better deployed in an organisation.

But if the advances and insights that digital tools and artificial intelligence (AI) have shown us anything, is that humans are not machines. The expandable working day that can concertina availability and efficiencies as the day takes shape cannot mean that our human capital is always and permanently ‘on’.

In a pilot study IQbusiness conducted in late 2021, nearly 70% of office-based staff in SA are functioning under extreme stress. One of the immediate steps leaders can take to ease this stress and risk of burn-out is to live the example of switching off. The AI tools at our disposal mean that we can schedule emails to only send during working hours so those in their third peak don’t disturb others trying to unwind. We can encourage responsible time management that has regular outdoor and exercise breaks in a working day. And we can take care to remember that a kind phone call or cup of coffee remains the best way to connect with another person, no matter how sophisticated an institution’s digital transformation is.

As we shape and reshape our evolving realities, each of us can use the AI tools at our disposal to make smarter choices in how and when we work. But it remains up to the human actors in our system to ensure that this work fosters a sense of connection and purpose, not dysfunction and exhaustion.

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