Subscribe to Inc. magazine
STARTUP

To Make Your Employees Feel Less Busy, Give Them More to Do?

Incredibly counter-intuitive research out of Harvard suggests a novel way to make your employees feel more free: Give them more to do. Huh?
Advertisement

Sometimes scientific findings of such head-slapping obviousness--talking on the phone makes you a worse driver and men generally favor large breasts, for example--that they make the average lay person wonder how anyone ever got funding to investigate the question in the first place. But then every once in a while, you run into a research result on the opposite end of the spectrum--something so counter-intuitive you can hardly believe it's true.

Harvard Business School just produced one of the latter, and it's of particular interest to entrepreneurs hoping to help their busy employees feel less of a time crunch. Michael Norton, an associate professor of business administration, wanted to find out how bosses can help their teams feel like they have more time. Given that we can't slow the sun's crossing of the sky, the obvious alternative is to simply give employees fewer tasks. But it turns out this common sense response is actually the exact opposite of what Norton discovered.

To figure out what can relieve our sense of time pressure, Norton conducted a series of experiments that gave some study subjects an unexpected block of free time, by sending them home 15 minutes early from an experiment they were told would take an hour for example. Another group was instead told to fill the time with worthwhile activities to help others such as editing essays for low-income students. Which group reported back that they felt they had enough time for all the tasks in their day?

Surprisingly, the answer is those who spend time helping others rather than those who were given additional free time. By doing activities that make them feel useful, employees increase their sense of "time affluence," the researchers conclude, implying that the source of our perceived time famine isn't really lack of hours but a lack of a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Norton offered three suggestions for how managers could put thus insight to use to Business Insider:

Make employees participate in a company volunteer effort, particularly if they can use part of their workday to do it.

Let employees know how their day-to-day tasks are helping others. If they can hear how the employee helped a customer, this will also make them more satisfied with their job.

Use fun strategies to encourage team members to help each other. Norton tells of one experiment where salespeople were given $20 bonus money and told they had to spend on another team member. Those teams sold more than other groups that were told to spend the $20 on themselves.

This latest research finding of Norton's follows earlier studies showing analogous, counter-intuitive results. One finding, for instance, revealed that letting employees give bonuses to others is actually more motivating than receiving bonuses themselves.

Do you think forcing your team to spend time on worthy tasks to help others would relieve their sense of being time poor--or just start a mutiny?

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: May 18, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: