In a hybrid world, we need a way of being highly efficient whilst maintaining maximum flexibility, explains John McLachlan
According to leaders we researched for our book Real Leaders, time management is one of the top issues executives face in their day-to-day work. ‘I haven’t had time’ is the biggest excuse around for why executives haven’t been able to achieve all they want to. This is understandable. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day running of the business or in customer issues. There is also an unlimited number of possibilities and opportunities. Top executives, in particular, are brilliant at spotting these and consequently drowning in them. Conventional time management strategies don’t work well for senior leaders. They need a way of being highly efficient whilst maintaining maximum flexibility and often find structure too restrictive and cumbersome. Being as efficient as possible is a critical skill for success, though. After all, we all have the same number of hours in a day.
This is an additional headache for those who are trying to support these executives. Assistants can easily struggle with a pile of competing priorities, constant changes and urgent requests. The hybrid working model is intended to provide people with additional flexibility, but for Assistants, factoring in location dynamics only adds to the dilemma. In order to remain highly effective whilst integrating all these additional considerations into your work, it can help to revisit the key ways people think about time. This will enable you and your executive to work in sync more naturally.
Here are some tips to create a rhythm whilst remaining true to your executive’s natural style:
Plan Activities to Fit With Your Executive’s Time Chunking Style
If they like to get immersed in activities, an ‘in the moment’ person, it is best to organise activities in big pieces of time so that they can get stuck in – a half-day or even a whole day rather than bits and pieces. Leaders who think like this enjoy spending a whole day on marketing or people development, for example, so that they go deep into the subject and make progress. This is the most overall efficient way for them to work; they are less effective when they dip in and out of things.
If they are more in flow when dipping into activities, provide short respites between activities or meetings (i.e., plan their activities in small pieces). Then they can do one small thing at a time. People with this preferred way of sorting sometimes don’t get started because it all feels too much. However, when they break it down into small 15- or 30-minute chunks, it’s very doable. Leaders who are naturally like this enjoy a lot of variety and are more efficient at ticking off smaller pieces of work at a time. They find whole-day meetings very draining and tend to be less effective in these environments.
When organising around a hybrid working environment, you also need to consider in which locations your executives do their best work. Not everyone sees this the same way. For example, some people like their meetings face to face, where they can read body language and have freer discussions. Some, though, prefer video call meetings, where there is more structure and it’s easier to make sure everyone can speak up. Many people keep their quiet work for their working-from-home days, but it’s not for everyone. Some people find that there are more distractions at home. One universal consideration is that most people find endless video calls draining, so schedule breaks to fit with their time chunk preference to get some respite.
This is as much about energy conservation as efficiency. As their Assistant, helping them to nail a better rhythm will ensure they can do better work and enjoy it more when you can organise activities to fit with their time chunking preferences.
Be Conscious of Competing Priorities
Executives have competing priorities, and this is probably the number one reason they don’t spend as much time on things they know are important as they should. More immediate needs take over from activities that will benefit in the longer term. This is normal, and you can help them to consciously choose what to put first. As a mentor of ours says, ‘First things first, second things never’. Ask them to think about what’s the most important thing right now and deal with that. That doesn’t mean they won’t do other things, but for that day or week they are deciding that, for example, the board papers are the top priority. If they tell you many things are important, ask them to stack rank them, just for this week. Sometimes executives avoid being tied down and like to keep their options open, so it helps to shorten the timeline. You can keep this just between you, and they can always change their mind next week. It gives both of you a focus, as you can help coordinate activities around that focus. Even if you get distracted, you are more likely to return to it.
A key issue for the executive and Assistant relationship in the hybrid working model is that because you are together less frequently, it can feel harder. When you are sitting next to each other, it’s easier to have a quick chat or pass over some important information. If you work in a hybrid model, it’s more important than ever to have a clear sense of their priorities, as you will need to make decisions on their behalf more frequently without all the contexts.
Set Clear But Flexible Boundaries
A key issue for executives is getting their accessibility right. No one wants to be hidden away, unavailable to anyone – but a free-for-all open access policy will not work well either. This was a constant struggle for executives and their Assistants before hybrid working, but hybrid working has made it more complex. Being able to visually see someone contributes to people believing they are accessible and available, even if they don’t speak to them. It is still important that executives are ‘seen’ during in-office days and don’t just spend the whole day shut inside a meeting room, even if it is counterproductive from a productivity perspective. If you optimize their in-office days for productivity only, it is likely you will get hounded with requests for time with your executive or hear complaints about them not being very available. Neither of these is good for the leader themselves in the long run.
Instead, work out with them how they want to address this. Some ideas that can work well are to:
- schedule short breaks where they will go hang out in the cafe or break areas and say hello to people as they move between meetings;
- schedule time after the team meeting when they can chat with people rather than rushing off;
- hold networking breakfasts or lunches on in-office days.
There are many creative ways to be seen without impacting productivity.
Once you’ve worked out how to make your executive available to the best effect, you can then set some clear boundaries for when they are not to be disturbed. It’s important to approach it this way around. If you cut them off from people first, that will be what people remember – whereas if they have some networking breakfasts in the diary or are seen around chatting to people and then you carve out some time, this will be more likely viewed positively.
Too many executives in organisations don’t do as well as they could because they don’t get the habits right, not because their strategy was wrong. And you can make a world of difference by getting the habits right. By making small tweaks to the routine, you can become more efficient naturally, rather than being forced into a rhythm of working that might be seen as normal but doesn’t work for you or the executive you work for.