Take Time to Smell the Roses: Building a flexible, socially engaged workplace

As the owner of a consultancy, I often look for inspiration from business coaches, leaders and authors, which has led me to read extensively on the subject of good, productive project management. While I’ve taken many lessons on board, I’ve also learned when to push back against ideas I don’t feel work for my business or the people I employ.

One insightful book, Eat That Frog1, speaks very eloquently about the importance of making a list of must-do tasks and getting on top of those “big ugly tasks” right away. I do agree with this approach and, as I noted in my previous blog Stop Racing the Clock, I have been working to incorporate this approach into my business. What I don’t agree with is the idea that nice-to-do tasks shouldn’t be on the list.

Both creatively and from the point of view of building rapport and ease amongst colleagues I have intentionally included nice-to-dos in my list of tasks, such as a coffee or Zoom catchup with old colleagues. These more social interactions often lead to project inspiration and ways to resolve problems. I remember being on a webinar with a large multi-national life sciences company, during which they spoke about their own policy of scheduling innovation time or thinking time into people’s calendars. That very much fits with my ethos.

Clearly, there are times when our calendars are full and these nice-to-dos have to make way for pressing deadlines. As a general rule, however, I do schedule these into my daily plan and ensure my colleagues do the same so we are coming up for air.

We have begun including those more social, fun moments in our interactions with one another. I think of it as innovation time, since I’ve learned that distractions are not only good for staff morale and reducing pressure, but also for sparking creative thinking.

For example, recently I realised my employees were unusually quiet and banter-free due to work pressure so I injected some intentional distraction into the day, encouraging everyone to share their dream holiday when the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic is over, assuming money was no object. We made so many discoveries in this discussion. I now have a new ambition to go to Alaska to see the northern lights in three years and it turns out they are supposed to be particularly bright that year. Someone else mentioned wanting to visit Chernobyl because a place that was once so destroyed had become a fertile place for wildlife.

These discussions have helped to stoke the fires of everyone’s enthusiasm, allow time to regroup and refresh their minds and refocus their energy and creativity.

Building a productive workplace

Flexibility is also central to a productive and happy workplace, particularly during these times of greater restrictions where work-from-home rules mean our working lives have crept further and further into our personal lives. To mitigate the pressure this can cause, we have established more flexible work guidelines, telling staff to adjust their hours as suits them, such as starting an hour earlier or finishing an hour later and building more frequent and longer breaks into their day. We simply ask that staff put an internal out-of-office notice on their email if they are going to be away for longer than an hour.

However, we don’t want staff to have to account for every minute of their day, so our policy is that nobody expects a response to an internal message within an hour. I believe this is all about trust. We have a wonderful, hardworking team and we know they are focused on their projects, on clients’ needs and on deadlines – micromanaging their time is not only unnecessary but counter to enabling a creative, compassionate and approachable place to work.

I have found inspiration from another insightful book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry2, which addresses the problem of busyness and the importance of embracing a simpler way of life. While we do need to balance what the author proposes since we are a business, there is much that can be learned from such an approach.

Ultimately, we are a business and we must meet deadlines and serve our clients through our ideas, knowledge and expertise. But if we don’t take time to “smell the roses”, to decompress and to share our dreams and concerns with one another, if we don’t build flexibility and nice-to-dos into our day we become less engaged, less productive and less creative.

1. Brian Tracy (2017) Eat That Frog. London. Yellow Kite.
2. John Mark Comer (2019) The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. London. Hodder & Stoughton