When Your Metronome is Broken

If you ever took piano lessons as a child, maybe you can relate to my aversion to metronomes. These are the timekeeping devices (now apps) that keep a steady beat. If my teacher said, “Perhaps you should practice this with the metronome,” it meant that my tempo was either too slow, too fast or, more often, very uneven. (This was not helped by the fact that my antique metronome actually kept time inconsistently, as it turned out. Not to be trusted!)

Our sense of timing has been very uneven in these COVID times, hasn’t it? Days blending into one another. Weekends feeling like weekends. Holidays indistinguishable from regular weeks. Has it really been a year? Has it only been a year?

A similar disconnect surrounds our workloads. We know our overall capacity is down and the need for self-care is up, but our workloads have mostly not decreased accordingly. In fact, most of us are working more to accommodate COVID-related changes in work-related compliance, in our colleagues’ capacity and in our own productivity. Increased work demands are cited as the largest contributor to a decline in workplace wellbeing identified by 89% of respondents in a recent study featured in Harvard Business Review.

Plus, we’re foggy from decision fatigue and a year of living with what one colleague has called “ambient anxiety.” The stop/start of lockdowns being imposed and lifted is exhausting. To draw on another childhood memory, to me it feels like that uncertain moment when you’re skipping rope with friends and you don’t quite know if you should jump in to take your turn or not. You lean in and breathlessly pull back a few times before taking the plunge, hoping you get your timing right. But this time, that moment has lasted more than twelve months.

One of the gifts leaders can offer their teams right now is clarity about the cadence of work. Co-create a shared sense of timing. Should people be moving faster or slower? Is that project deadline remaining the same or being extended? What’s expected in terms of attendance and/or output?

In his book Rest, Alex Soojun-Kim Pang makes a strong historical case for the genius of a four-hour workday. If you can’t quite go that far, you can at least communicate whether you’re expecting a 55-hour work week at 65% capacity or a 40-hour work week at 90%. Do the math.

Your team will appreciate any certainty and steadiness you can provide. Set a sustainable pace for your people.

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