It’s time to talk about time

The whole point of an office was: Everybody in the same place at the same time.

Supervisors could supervise by direct, real time interaction. You could have meetings with everyone going into the same room. Spontaneous brainstorming, collaboration, and team-building could take place in the hallway at anyone’s desk or in front of the water cooler.

Before networked PCs, working together meant being together at the same time.

The upside of same place, same time office work was the ability to have ad hoc, intuitive, and effortless engagement with coworkers. The downside was the constant interruptions.

In a hierarchical organizational structure, meetings—especially status update meetings—were a huge time-saver for the Big Boss and a time-waster for everyone else.

And so the rise in email use for communicating with people in the same office became the norm. Its biggest benefit was: asynchronicity.

Tension arose between coworkers and managers who felt a visceral need for meetings (either as a way to navigate the details of various projects and initiatives or as a habit for procrastination) and people who were negatively affected by punctuating their time in the office with distracting meetings. “That meeting could have been an email,” complained the deep-work introverts.

But then some people lost control of, and patience with, email, ending up with inboxes filled with old, obsolete emails, personal drivel, marketing promotions, spam, and other detritus. And so workers, especially younger workers, came to prefer Slack and other messaging platforms that offered a range of communication options, from topic-specific “rooms” or “channels” to instant messaging-like conversations. Like a social network, most of the conversations in platforms like Slack just keep on going and wait for no one.

Metaphorically, email is a bucket that collects messages until it overflows. Slack-like tools are like streams you can dip your toe into, which keep on flowing whether you’re participating or not. The appeal of Slack is that it’s not quite real-time, but not quite asynchronous, either.

And then remote work happened…

Suddenly we find that our workplace is no longer a place—a critical mass of our colleagues are elsewhere, which means work-from-home staff are no longer a barely tolerated minority who have to bend over backward to accommodate the in-office staff.

Over the next few years (as the new world of remote and hybrid work sets in) remote work will become increasingly normal for our teammates and colleagues in different time zones.

And that changes everything.

The future of work is flatter and less hierarchical. It won’t accept people routinely getting up at 2 a.m. to attend a business meeting because of their location.

Every organization, division, and team will need to develop an all-important awareness of time zones and the hours each day when reasonable business hours overlap. For example, if you’ve got employees in both Los Angeles and London and locations in between, you’re in luck. Sure, the beginning of the day in L.A. (9 a.m.) happens at the same time as the end of the day in London (5 p.m.). But this can be accommodated by a minor shift to either beginning the workday in California at 8 a.m. or ending the London workday at 6 p.m. That means you have exactly one hour for real-time meetings.

If you have employees in Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, and Istanbul, then you’ve got a problem if you want all-hands, real-time video meetings. The 9-to-5 business hours in Istanbul take place between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. in Honolulu.

But whether your overlapping window is three hours, one hour, or zero hours, overlapping time windows are short. The scarcity of time makes it super valuable.

That means the purpose of real-time video meetings must pass a high bar for them to occur at all. And it means that the skill of conducting concise, purposeful meetings becomes immeasurable.

More importantly, it’s time for your organization to get very serious about enabling high-quality asynchronous communications—not only because you’re operating over multiple time zones, but also because asynchronicity is a foundational element of flexible work. Each employee will be happier and more productive if they can engage with coworkers on their own time, whether it’s during the old 9-to-5 workday or whether it’s after 9 p.m. when the kids are asleep.

Asynchronous communication tools will need to replace most meetings, most “water cooler conversations,” and most brainstorming and collaboration sessions.

The best tools for doing so are yet to be determined.

For now, it’s time to start thinking about time. Because in the new world of remote, hybrid, and flex work, employees need to work and interact largely on their own schedule.

It’s about time.

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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