The Illusion Of Time

Meeting Anuj was accidental. When I shifted to the new location in search of better prospects, I carried along a lot of apprehensions, loss of contacts, enhanced physical distance from my loved ones, a precarious self-belief, the guilt of having to re‑establish the family in a new location, and, the challenge of establishing oneself in an unknown group. The new place as well as the organisation were very different culturally. Therefore, it became pertinent to make newer friends and remain in constant touch with those people whom I had assumed were my resource. I also decided to join a Google group on HR in the new location to make new friends. The group that I joined consisted of young entrepreneurs who owned small to mid-sized firms and were now building people capabilities. We met once every month, in any one among the entrepreneurs’ offices to discuss the HR challenges that were faced by that particular organisation during that stage of growth.

 

Anuj, Founder-Owner of Ajency.com was the speaker of the day. He introduced his firm as a team of UX/UI team that was HFI Certified. Their expertise was in single page web applications, React, Angular JS, DJango, PHP, Cross platform mobile applications, Ionic framework, Responsive web design etc. The HR challenge was follows:

 

From a 4 member team that started Ajency.in in 2015, Anuj’s team was touching 100 employees in 2017. Anuj remembered that in the initial days when they were starting the business, the team members were open to even opening the lock, cleaning the floors, fending for coffee and any other mundane job depending on the need of the hour. All the four members were equally in it!

 

As new team members were added initially, the trend to not define boundaries and accountability continued, and, there existed no need for rules. People, by and large, managed themselves well along with their work. But as the team grew, the randomness in people coming in and going out of the office, it became difficult for the group to manage. There were comparisons on how many hours were contributed by whom, and in due course, a perceived unfairness and heartburn in the team members started to build.

 

In order to avoid this, the group decided to have 9.30 AM to 6 PM as their fixed timings with two days of flexitime. The group checked with the labour office in terms of the legal requirement of work hours prior to its implementation. Soon, complaints with regards to people being unable to manage work-life balance, and with the timings becoming very constricting there were frequent requests of leave or time off at an informal level to complete personal work.

 

“During those days, I started the day with a 5-minute stand-up meeting with the team sharp at 9.30 AM, and then each one of us rolled into our respective routines. The stand-up meet was done so that time was not wasted and meetings did remain short and focussed.”

 

However, since many people travelled long distances, often there were delays, which resulted in unnecessary pressure for people to reach on time. If someone was delayed the team members made faces, and, there were sarcastic comments. The environment became quite unpleasant. During rains, which are common, there were understandable delays and everyone’s work and routine suffered just because of one or two members. In all, the purpose of equity was not being met and the cost of the rule was high.

 

The team felt that this system was not working, so instead of 9.30, the meetings were shifted to 11, and, it was decided that everyone has to compulsorily stay between 11-4, and the rest of the time was made flexible as per their requirement so long as they were clocking 9 hours of work including lunch time. At this point in time, the arrangement was trust‑based, but again, it was found that some people were misusing the laid down practice.

 

Since it was an IT solutions and services company, a team member developed a programme which would cap the logging time beyond 40 hours a week. And, if someone clocked less than 8 hours of work or turned in after 11 AM, a system generated reminder mail to the effect that the concerned employee had turned in late went to his/her official mailbox. This functioned to create a certain level of pressure and there was an improvement in employee behaviour towards attendance. However, those who wanted to beat the system still remained lax and found ways of non‑adherence. With every effort at improvisation, the purpose of instilling discipline remained defeated and each process of evolution brought in needless bureaucracy. The company was losing relevance in terms of its ability to create an employee experience of positive discipline. As an entrepreneur, Anuj felt defeated as he was not able to create a good ecosystem of interdependent variables that would make his team a high performing work team.

 

As I heard Anuj’s story, I became increasingly aware of the rule setting processes in small firms. As a firm grows, rules must be made, but the rules must not be foolish and sans the lazy attempts to control and create order without enough detailing. The need to form the rule must not be more than the need for care! Rules at no point should supersede the care. When companies grow, there are difficulties in maintaining standards and performance rigor. Different people bring different baggages and use the system to suit their personal needs and this is normal human behaviour.

 

Creating demoralizing rules to halt the behaviour of a handful of outlandish employees is not the solution to this problem. The leader must handle this as a management problem. In today’s world of “naked organisation” where employers announce the rules and policies even before the employee has joined the firm to improve psychological contracts, changing policies repeatedly, even if it is on time keeping can lead to major reconfiguration in the work-life balance of employees who are otherwise disciplined. This could be stressful and demotivating and could lead to further deviant behaviour with larger employees participating in it.

 

I felt that Anuj needed to think through over the need for time keeping. Did the work arrangement in his firm really need adherence to time? Otherwise it would become like the phrase in hindi, “Bhaagte bhoot ki langoti”! People who were deviant would find a way to beat the system, and people who are committed will get disengaged. Mandating time often meant distrust among people who are otherwise were sincere in their work. Forceful adherence was often disillusioning.

 

Were there not better ways of handling this? For example, building a culture of team‑based controls, the team could be made responsible for keeping and controlling their team members! Or building a system of shame and glory! Yet another way could be by making a performance appraisal system that penalised the non‑performers and incentivised the performers, this would mean defining the performance in concrete absolute terms! Or building some form of an alternate contract which rested on self‑expression, self-discipline, and autonomy?

 

For me, this discussion had provided a new meaning, and a new intellectual relationship.  As for Anuj, I was sure that him being Anuj, a sharpshooter, and extremely intelligent, these questions would help him identify the next course of action on the rule-making!

Dr. Anamika Sinha is the Associate Professor at Goa Institute of Management. She is also a trainer and an HR consultant in a freelancing capacity.

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