Sunday, 30 December 2012

Energy and Sustainability in the Workplace

In this period of festive celebrations many of us, hopefully, may have been experiencing a renewal of positive energy, feeling and strength.

How about having such amount of positive energy every day when we work, on a constant and sustainable basis?

This post is about an article 'Manage your energy, not your time' which was written by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy in 2007 and published within the 'Harvard Business Review Guide to Getting the Right Work Done'. I found some concepts and ideas within the article inspiring, valuable and helpful.

Below are the marginalia I extracted from the article. While as always I encourage you to enjoy the original source, at the same time I hope that you can benefit from my notes. Perhaps you may find useful to bring some of them into your working life and help increase energy in your workplace.

The authors begin the article by explaining that while time is a finite resource, energy is a different story. Defined as the 'capacity to work' by physics, energy comes from: the body, emotions, mind and spirit.

Differing by time, energy can be expanded and regularly renewedby establishing specific rituals—behaviours that are intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled, with the goal of making them unconscious and automatic as quickly as possible”.

The article suggests that to effectively reenergize workforces, organizations and individuals need “to recognize the costs of energy-depleting behaviors and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of the circumstances they’re facing”.

In fact, many organisations invest in employees’ skills, knowledge and competence but very few help build and sustain their energy—which is often taken for granted. However, the authors write, “greater capacity, makes it possible to get more done in less time at a higher level of engagement and with more sustainability”.

The authors continue by citing the story of Wachovia Bank and their ability to build on an energy management programme which resulted in greater achievements, improvements and engagement in their workplace. The programme was run in 2006 (106 employees at 12 regional banks in southern New Jersey took part in it) and went through the four dimensions of energy mentioned above

1. The Body: Physical Energy

After taking and energy audit, participants began to explore ways to increase their physical energy and identify rituals for building and renewing it. An example of a key ritual identified by one participant was to take brief but regular breaks at specific intervals throughout the workday (e.g. getting up to talk to a colleague about something other than work, taking a brief walk, etc.).

Intermittent breaks for renewal, result in higher and more sustainable performance. The length of renewal is less important than the quality. While breaks are countercultural in most organizations and counterintuitive for many high achievers, their value is multifaceted.”


2. The Emotions: Quality of Energy

When people are able to take more control of their emotions, they can improve the quality of their energy, regardless of the external pressures they’re facing”.

The authors suggest us to become more aware of how we feel at various points during the workday and of the impact these emotions have on our effectiveness. When feeling positive people perform best. However, “confronted with relentless demands and unexpected challenges, people tend to slip into negative emotions—the fight-or-flight mode—often multiple times in a day. They become irritable and impatient, or anxious and insecure. Such states of mind drain people’s energy and cause friction in their relationships”.

One of the rituals the authors present in order to fuel positive emotions is to learn to change the stories we tell ourselves about the events in our lives. “Often, people in conflict cast themselves in the role of victim, blaming others or external circumstances for their problems. Becoming aware of the difference between the facts in a given situation and the way we interpret those facts can be powerful in itself. It’s been a rev- elation for many people to discover they have a choice about how to view a given event and to recognize how powerfully the story they tell influences the emotions they feel.

The article suggests that an effective way people can change a story is to view it through any of 'three new lenses'. Each of these lenses can help people intentionally cultivate more positive emotions:

  • Reverse lens - for example, people ask themselves: “What would the other person in this conflict say and in what ways might that be true?”
  • Long lens - they ask themselves: “How will I most likely view this situation in six months?”
  • Wide lens - they ask themselves: “Regardless of the outcome of this issue, how can I grow and learn from it?”


3. The Mind: Focus of Energy
Many view multitasking as a necessity in the face of all the demands they juggle, but it actually undermines productivity. Distractions are costly.

The article reports that a temporary shift in attention from one task to another (for example, stopping to answer an e-mail), increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%, a phenomenon known as 'switching time'.
It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity ('ultradian sprints').”

In order to cope with the struggle people see to concentrate themselves in their work, they can create rituals to reduce the relentless interruptions (for instance, by creating a ritual of checking emails just twice a day at specific intervals rather than answering email constantly throughout the day).

Finally, another suggestion given by the authors for mobilizing mental energy is to “focus systematically on activities that have the most long-term leverage”. That means intentionally scheduling time for more challenging work, rather than rushing through it at the last minute or tending not to get to it at all. For example, as the article presents,“one of the most effective focus ritual executives adopted was to identify each night the most important challenge for the next day and make it their very first priority when they arrive in the morning.


4. The Human Spirit: Energy of Meaning and Purpose
People tap into the energy of the human spirit when their everyday work and activities are consistent with what they value most and with what gives them a sense of meaning and purpose”.

The authors report that regrettably, “the high demands and fast pace of corporate life don’t leave much time to pay attention to these issues, and many people don’t even recognize meaning and purpose as potential sources of energy.
However, by being attentive to our own deeper needs we can dramatically influence our effectiveness and satisfaction at work.

The article reports that in order to access the energy of the human spirit people should clarify priorities and establish accompanying rituals in three categories:
  • doing what they do best and enjoy most at work;
  • consciously allocating time and energy to the areas of their life they deem most important (work, family, health, service to others);
  • living their core values in their daily behaviors

According to the authors' words, “addressing these three categories helps people go a long way toward achieving a greater sense of alignment, satisfaction, and well-being in their lives on and off the job. Those feelings are a source of positive energy in their own right and reinforce people’s desire to persist at rituals in other energy dimensions as well”.

The article ends by reporting that at present not all companies are prepared to embrace the notion that personal renewal for employees will lead to better and more sustainable performance. “The implicit contract between organizations and their employees today is that each will try to get as much from the other as they can, as quickly as possible, and then move on without looking back. We believe that is mutually self-defeating. Both individuals and the organizations they work for end up depleted rather than enriched”.

However, the authors suggest adopting “a new and explicit contract that benefits all parties: organizations invest in their people across all dimensions of their lives to help them build and sustain their value. Individuals respond by bringing all their multidimensional energy wholeheartedly to work every day. Both grow in value as a result”.


As I wrote above I found the article very interesting and its concepts valid and valuable. You may also have found something true in these marginalia for yourself and your workplace.

I would like to conclude this post by wishing you and your organisation a New Year 2013 full of positive energy, a renewal perhaps, that will lead you and your organisation to better sustainability and performance!