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Striking a Balance in the High-Intensity Workplace: Fostering Teamwork Makes All the Difference

Last month, Harvard Business Review’s June issue featured an article entitled, “Managing the 24/7 Workplace” by Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan. On the cover was the face of a clock that, upon first impression, appears harmless, boding no ill will.

Yet the issue dives into a widely experienced phenomenon when it comes to our professional lives: we’re operating in a ‘round the clock’ work cycle. Whether consciously or not, employers are stretching responsibilities well beyond the traditional 9 to 5. Gone are the days of shutting down the computer and heading home, for better or for worse.

Reid and Ramarajan do a thorough job dissecting the “ideal worker culture” built upon the emerging gray area between our personal and professional lives.

What we’re observing with today’s modern workforce can oftentimes feel like a battle between finding personal fulfillment and career aspirations, favoring those who accept the pressure to routinely extend work into personal life and private time. Some call it the shift from work/life balance to work/life integration. Whether this is a trend that motivates you or one that causes anxiety, it’s embedded into the fabric of the contemporary workforce.

Reid and Ramarajan go on to define today’s workers based on how they deal with new workplace demands: those that accept the way things are and those feeling reluctant to buy into infringements on their personal life. The article then reveals how these different attitudes affect morale, create misunderstandings and, if not properly managed, continue to perpetuate the preference to reward those who work more rather than those who work efficiently in the challenge to find the best balance.

Admittedly, I’m sympathetic to accepters, and for good reason. My work has always been a part of who I am. Whereas others see a clear division between work and play, the line between the two has always been blurry for me and I am comfortable with that. I was directly rewarded for the hard work poured into a career that was – and is – fulfilling. I owe a lot, however, to great managers along the way who helped me find my equilibrium despite my tendencies to pour everything into work. Most importantly, they helped me understand when to scale back and recharge the batteries.

And that’s just it. A great manager can make all the difference in navigating this 24/7 work culture. Unfortunately, many of those in a position of management only exacerbate 24/7 work patterns. This can lead to unnecessary stress and burnout. We recognize the need for organizational change at this level, but where should managers begin? Longer term, what can companies do to formalize behaviors that acknowledge different work styles and in turn, help modern workers succeed in and out of the office?

Here are a few considerations to start fostering teamwork:

  • Assemble your team thoughtfully. It’s more important than ever to hire for teamwork: when push comes to shove, I need to be able to connect with the people I work with at a personal level with relationships rooted in trust. Hiring a team means recruiting a strong bench of team players who can offer up different skills and diverse ways of approaching work. Not everyone you hire needs to work the same way you do. In fact, they shouldn’t! The idea is to complement each other and provide support while empowering your team to work its best.
  • Embrace challenges. Work styles can and should change often over the course of a lifetime. And that’s ok. Reflection is critical to personal and professional growth. Teach employees early on to look consciously upon the stages in their career where they’ve excelled most, think about the challenges and tests they’ve faced, and plan for what’s next by tapping into inherent attributes exhibited at work and at home.
  • Give workers greater control over their time. Encourage teams to set their own deadlines, within reason. This ensures that the focus – and incentive – is less on time spent and more on quality of output. With clear direction, this can instill greater confidence in workers and raise the level of work produced. By giving junior team members greater autonomy over their time, you’re indicating you trust them. This will empower them to work smarter across the board. 
  • Let bottom-up accountability fuel expectations. Healthy pushback should be encouraged, especially if managers veer away from established expectations and individual responsibilities. Managers should make it clear to junior team members that the more they articulate boundaries and plan ahead – factoring in scheduling and style differences – the more they will develop competencies that will only serve to benefit themselves and future teams they’ll go on to manage and mentor.
  • Recognize the importance of passion outside of work. By “pointing out the positive things that employees’ outside activities bring to the workplace,” as the article points out, you can establish rapport and show your support for you teams’ “extracurricular” interests. This has a twofold benefit: you’re acknowledging how external experience can inform workplace decisions while also showing employees that it’s healthy to have priorities other than work; priorities that need equal attention and nurturing. By encouraging employees to be well rounded, you’re opening the door to greater creativity – and nurturing more multifaceted employees, overall.
  • Acknowledge the role of middle management. Managers are the foundation of any team. To be effective, they need the time and the tools to monitor and reflect on behavioral trends of direct reports. Top-down buy in is essential: managers need the right resources and the blessing of senior leadership, as well as formal mechanisms to track and debrief on team work patterns.
  • Create your war room. I’m a creative, and I firmly believe there’s something priceless about visualizing the goal. Based on experience – and perhaps a bit of nostalgia – I’ve seen stark improvements in team contributions thanks in large part to a shared area to fuel new thinking.

Today’s workforce desperately needs common space – physical or virtual – for people to bounce ideas off of each other. If you’re working within the challenges of an increasingly distributed workforce, this can be done virtually with great results if done properly. From video to real-time and offline collaboration, get in front of your teams in multiple ways. Be sure to sprinkle in face time and make it count, too.

At the end of the day, everyone’s handwriting should be on the “war room” wall. When you see the input from everyone, you begin to understand how an idea develops and improves with iteration. This is essential for learning how a team functions: visualizing how and where individual contributions connect to a team’s result.

Encouraging individuality can generate better ideas and ultimately improve business outcomes. True innovation relies on managing the high-intensity workplace with a focus on knowing employees’ strengths and work preferences without risk of glorifying the “culture of busy.” In doing so, leadership can buy themselves some points when asking for a project turnaround that might extend beyond the traditional workday.

With flexibility and proper leadership, being “always on” isn’t the antithesis of balance, but rather a way to spot how individuals work best and produce their best results. The more frequently we have this conversation with management today, the better off we’ll all be to take on the demands of work without sacrificing ourselves in the process.

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