Prepare Workers To Weather Time Shocks

Building temporal resilience into jobs can help employees thrive when schedules turn upside down

Texas McCombs
Big Ideas


Based on the research of David Harrison

When the COVID-19 lockdowns struck and masses of workers relocated to their homes, they experienced major disruptions in their spaces of work.

Less obviously, says David Harrison, they also experienced major disruptions in time. They had to create new schedules from scratch, often blurring boundaries between company and personal time.

Temporal disruptions aren’t just inconvenient, says the management professor and Prothro Regents Chair of Business Administration at Texas McCombs. They can carry tangible business costs, such as impaired health, increased mistakes, and reduced productivity.

In a new study with Liliana Pérez-Nordtvedt of The University of Texas at Arlington, Harrison looks at how to make such disruptions less disruptive. He and his co-author propose a theory for promoting temporal resilience that fits individuals’ workflows and psychologies to new arrangements in time.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all strategy for resilience, he finds three: adjusting, absorbing, and adopting. Each has strengths and weaknesses, depending on the length and severity of a disruption. “There are different patterns of resilience to different kinds of changes in time,” Harrison says.

Strengthening resilience is increasingly important in today’s business world, he adds. With intricate supply chains and operations that sprawl across time zones, time disturbances will only increase.

“The kinds of things that we do to make our economies more efficient also make changes in time ripple outward in much more serious ways,” he says. “If you’ve got them all tightly bound together, a temporal disruption throws everything out of whack.”

Wrinkles and Rips

Harrison has long been interested in how time functions in organizations. “Organizations exist because people need to get things done together,” he says. “To get things done together, we have to have the right timing.”

The more temporal routines get entrenched, though, the harder workers find them to alter, he says. Often, according to previous research, the most productive employees have the most difficulty.

“They’ve developed a rhythm and a series of activities that make them highly efficient,” Harrison says. “So, pushing people off kilter in time is going to hurt your most productive people first.”

To examine ways to mitigate time disruptions, the researchers’ first step was to classify them. Breaking them down by the degree and duration of change, they distinguished four broad types.

  • Wrinkling: Low degree and short term, such as an emergency staff meeting or an internet crash.
  • Reshaping: Low degree and long term, as in changing from flextime to 9-to-5.
  • Ripping: High degree and short term, as when an industrial accident requires a week of overtime.
  • Razing: High degree and long term, such as moving to another country — or to working at home during a pandemic.

In the pandemic example, Harrison says, “You’re taking something that was highly structured, and now it’s completely unstructured. That’s a complete reorganization of your time, and you’ve got to develop skills to be able to deal with that.”

Strategies for Time Resilience

Given the vastly different ways in which routines can be displaced, how do workers stay productive and avoid burnout? Reviewing more than 130 prior studies, the researchers identified three kinds of responses.

Adjusting: Outwardly, workers change their schedules. But psychologically, they resist change, expecting that routines will soon return to normal.

Such an employee might attend an emergency meeting but daydream. They might get up early for a Zoom meeting with a client in Asia — and then go back to bed. “I make it look like I’m changing, but internally, I’m not,” Harrison says.

Adjusting can work for minor disturbances such as wrinkling, he notes. But for longer and deeper disruptions, psychological resistance may reduce both job satisfaction and output.

Absorbing: Employees absorb disruptions by shifting tasks around to accommodate them. Absorption depends on having flexible schedules in which not every minute is booked.

Harrison points to the corporate example of Google, which once encouraged workers to set aside 20% of their time for their own side projects. Having unscheduled time makes it easier to absorb larger disruptions, such as reshaping or ripping.

Adopting: When a disruption looks to be long term, some people accept the new normal. “Adopting is embracing the new time schedule. I reorganize my world to fit in with this change,” Harrison says.

Faced with moving to a home office, workers may reshuffle personal time to make space for evening and weekend meetings. Rather than resisting, they can view it as a career opportunity.

But adopting can have a downside. Once employees settle into new routines, they may find it hard to return to old ones — as when they’re called back to the office.

Promoting Resilience at Work

Harrison hopes that future research will shed more light on the three strategies and their pros and cons for various types of time disruptions. In the meantime, he offers several ideas to foster temporal resilience in the workplace — before disruptions strike.

One is to make deadlines more flexible. “The more you can loosen up tight time cycles, the better able people are going to be to rejigger their cycles to meet the demands,” Harrison says.

Another tactic is to include slack time in schedules so minor interruptions don’t wreck an entire day. Harrison does it for himself by leaving at least a half-hour between meetings.

“Build in that little buffer,” he advises. “If everything’s super-duper wound tight, then nobody’s ever going to be on time.”

If a manager needs to make a major time change, Harrison suggests breaking it into a series of smaller changes, giving workers time to adapt to each stage.

Finally, he advises, don’t expect superhuman performance. When there are shocks to schedules, allow for short-term dips — particularly from the most effective workers.

“Recognize that it’s not people being resistant to change,” he says. “It’s people being organisms for whom time is a fundamental element of dealing with the environment. Time has a learning curve, too.”

From Time Wrinkling to Time Razing Disruptions: Understanding Temporal Resilience” is published online in the Academy of Management Review.

Story by Steve Brooks



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