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Employee Productivity: Win Their Minds, Not Their Time

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When you think about how other people spend their time at work, what do you base your impression on? The websites you see up on their screen during the day? Whether they arrive before you or leave later? The amount or quality of their work?

The past couple of weeks have thrown up some interesting observations on this subject, from a couple of different sources. Last week, The Economistran a piece that purported to provide an answer to a question that everyone has thrown around at some point: just what is it that your boss does with all their time.

The piece recounted the findings of a Harvard Business School study that asked the chief executives of 94 Italian firms to have their assistants record their activities for a week.

The study's key finding: "The average Italian boss works for 48 hours a week and spends 60% of that time in meetings. The most diligent put in another 20 hours. And the longer they work, the better the company does."

Whether or not attending all of those meetings is a good thing is very much open to question: the end of the piece laments the fact that CEOs get so little time for strategic, long-term thinking, and quotes the CEO of a headhunting firm as saying that "Chief executives will rue the day when BlackBerrys work on planes."

That concept of balancing everyday tasks and finding enough time to be able to step back and think about the bigger picture also emerged in a New York Times 'Corner Office' interviewwith Dominic Orr, CEO of wireless networking firm Aruba Networks. Commenting on his company's "no vacation policy"—i.e. a policy in which employees are free to arrange as much or as little time off as they wish, provided they get the job done—Orr, made the following point:

"[…] what we realized in this day and age — and in our industry, which is information-driven — what you really want is the mind-share of your employees, not timeshare. In fact, you actually get a more powerful work force. You get more of their time when you’re saying do it anywhere, and they end up giving you more mind-share, which is more important than giving you more timeshare. So that really is a big enlightenment for me in this job — that the work force, the workplace, is fundamentally transformed because of technology." (Emphasis added.)

Orr's point about mind-share being more important to a business than timeshare is an important one. We’ve all had the bosses and co-workers who, while seeming to spend every waking hour giving off the impression of hard work, somehow manage to achieve very little. Fewer among us will have had colleagues who freely admit to having stumbled on a great idea only because they were unencumbered by busy-work—largely because of the levels of pressure to always appear busy.

If, as the BusinessWeek piece reminds us, some of Bill Gates' best ideas came after dedicated "think weeks," who’s to say that more of us—and therefore our companies—wouldn't benefit from a little less structure, and a little more time for free thinking?

Phil Stott is a Producer at Vault.com, where he covers anything related to jobs, career advice and the economy for Vault's Careers Blog. Originally from Scotland, he has lived and worked in Eastern Europe, Asia and the U.S., in fields including consumer banking, education, journalism and … bowling. He currently resides in New York.

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