Business Speak

September 14, 2012 5:50 pm

Beware of the office martyr

Simon Bolton

I’m sure most of us are familiar with a particular species of office worker. They’re the ones who make sure they send an email around the office at 11pm, enuring everyone knows how late they’ve stayed in the office. They are too busy to go to the toilet, and dare not leave their desks for a lunch break.

It’s a faulty thought process. But to a large extent, it’s understandable. Hard work is intrinsically linked to the amount of time allocated to a task. From an early age, we’re taught that if you put the hours in and sacrifice fun in favour of study, you’ll reap the rewards later.

That mindset continues into the world of work, except we move to “if the right people notice how hard I’m working, it will pay off later”. The problem is, in many companies it’s not just a perception; a 2010 study of corporate managers by Professor Kimberly Elsbach of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management found that they generally considered employees who spent more time in the office to be more dedicated, more hardworking, and responsible.

If you add in the current economic predicament, it’s clear that many workers value job security more than ever, and will go to some lengths to ensure their job is safe. We can certainly all identify a grating colleague of this ilk, too obsessed with how the boss perceives them and not enough with the task at hand.

It can be a deeper-rooted problem than the surface suggests. More companies are coming to the realisation that internal culture is as important, in some cases more important than the overarching business strategy. A strong culture can define a company, but equally it can betray it. Those office martyrs not only limit their own abilities and potential by insisting on spending 12 hours a day at their desk, but often unsettle fellow employees.

Competition in the office is commonplace, but in particular the British in their never-ending quest to demonstrate just how bleak everything is, increasingly compete with each other to show just how busy they are. That encourages others to re-evaluate their own work ethic, and join in the inefficient cycle.

However, we’re seeing a new generation of workers (millennials as they’ve been termed), who understand that it’s the quality of your output that makes the difference, and not the time spent. As companies become flatter in terms of hierarchy, true talent has more opportunities to stand out. These millennials have grown up with options of more flexible working hours, manage their time effectively, outside of the black and white constraints of 9 to 5. They clock off on time, maintain a healthy work-life balance, and arrive the next day refreshed, and full of ideas.

The challenge for employers is not just to develop and encourage this mindset, but to break office martyrs out of their inefficient habits and make a concerted effort to instil a work ethic where output is the metric upon which employees are judged, while also rewarding those who get away from their desk every once in a while in an act of positive reinforcement.

Creativity, therefore, is the key and something we value highly. However, this is easy to say and more difficult to do. We have to create the time and an environment to ask staff to be inspiring. It’s too easy for employees to get into faulty behaviour because of what they’ve learnt, which leads to continuous reinforcement of poor behaviour.

In my view, companies can break the cycle by visibly demonstrating that they want to provide therapy style opportunities – I’m talking about breaking the traditional work day into segments for commercial, personal and philanthropic activities. You can trust people to balance these components if you have a successful and inspiring culture.

Simon Bolton is worldwide chief executive of The Brand Union, a brand agency

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