How CEOs Should Manage Their Time in the Hybrid Workplace

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After 18 months of leading organizations remotely, chief executives must learn to combine the best parts of what they’ve learned about virtual leadership with the most effective parts of managing face-to-face. The author, who studies how CEOs spend their time, suggests that leaders limit the negative consequences of video meetings, rethink assumptions about the reasons to travel, and protect their alone/personal time even more than before the pandemic.

CEOs are among the millions of professionals who’ve seen their long-established work rhythms disrupted during this ongoing global pandemic. During this period, corporate leaders have learned to use new communication tools, limit travel, and lead remotely.

Now, as they look ahead to reopening offices, some CEOs are already talking publicly about how they plan to work post-pandemic. For instance, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase is most outspoken about returning to a full-time, in-office routine. David Calhoun of Boeing has said he’ll be far less willing to travel for internal meetings with other Boeing employees, which he’d frequently done pre-pandemic.

Leaders should be wary of such categorical pronouncements. Instead, they should reflect on and experiment around how to intelligently combine the best parts of what they’ve learned during the pandemic with the best aspects of the face-to-face management style they utilized before 2020. What they need, in short, is a new approach to time management — one suitable for a hybrid world.

In 2018, my colleague Michael Porter and I wrote an article in Harvard Business Review called “How CEOs Manage Time.” We based it on an ongoing study, which began in 2006, in which we asked chief executives to log their schedules, minute by minute, 24 hours per day, for three months.

Based on data we had gathered from 27 CEOs at the time, we found the average CEO works 62.5 hours per week, sleeps 6.9 hours per night, exercises 45 minutes per day, allocates 61% of time for face-to-face meetings, and spends just 3% of time interacting with customers.

We also offered some recommendations for how CEOs can use their time more effectively, based on our conversations with CEOs after we shared their data. Among our suggestions were that CEOs spend less time running the business, reserve more “alone time” for reflection, block unscheduled time for spontaneous interactions, reduce the average length of meetings, spend more one-on-one time with directors and customers and less with investors, and resist the constant lure of email.

Those recommendations made sense at the time. However, as leaders think about reorienting their routines for a hybrid workplace, let me offer some new recommendations based on more recent conversations with CEOs and my decades of reflection on this role.

When thinking through these issues, keep in mind that the job of the CEO is multi-faceted and involves myriad functions, for which there is never enough time. Despite the time pressure, efficiency shouldn’t be the top consideration. For example, a fundamental duality of all leadership work involves accomplishing tasks and building relationships. This is especially true for CEOs, who rely almost entirely on others to get their job done. CEOs must therefore spend a significant amount of their time building high-quality trusting relationships. In a world of hybrid work, CEOs would be wise to remember that although they can readily do tasks remotely, building relationships work better with at least some face-to-face interaction.

CEOs Have Always Been Hybrid Workers

Some CEOs have emphasized the importance of having everyone in the office most of the time; these benefits include easier collaboration and more opportunities to train and mentor young employees. Other leaders, like Tim Cook of Apple, have proposed having every employee in the office only on certain days of the week. But the view that employees should spend most of their time in the office may overlook the fact that CEOs previously spent as much time working outside headquarters as inside.

In our 2018 study, we found CEO spent just 47% of working hours at the main office — with the rest in off-site meetings, traveling for business, or working remotely. And although CEOs held 61% of their meetings face to face, they were communicating electronically — by video conference, email, and telephone — more than one-third of the time.

In recent months, I’ve been advocating that companies devise a strategic hybrid system that first considers precisely how each employee contributes to its strategy and then analyzes whether WFH or an office setting would better support it. (In my view, trying to bring every employee into the office on a one-size-fits-all schedule is a terrible idea.) So as CEOs guide their organizations in thinking about the right proportion of in-office and remote time for each team and function, it’s worth recalling how much of their own time previously was away from the office.

At the same time, CEOs should recognize that time spent in the office carries symbolic value beyond its functional value. As we wrote in 2018: “How a CEO spends face-to-face time is viewed as a signal of what or who is important; people watch this more carefully than most CEOs recognize.” Even in organizations where many people opt to stay in WFH mode much of the time after Covid, CEOs will likely need to be in the office more than colleagues at other levels of the organization.

Limiting the Negative Consequences of Video Meetings

We have been fortunate that our technology infrastructure had developed sufficiently to make videoconferencing widely accessible before Covid hit. (Could you imagine millions of us trying to work remotely back in the dial-up era?) As a result, video meetings are highly efficient in many ways: I now routinely engage in 30-minute video meetings that used to take an hour when held face-to-face. At the same time, we’ve all grown aware of the many downsides of over-reliance on video meetings. Among them: “Zoom fatigue” and the blurring of work-life boundaries as the commute that signaled the end of the workday disappeared.

For CEOs, over-reliance on video meetings poses three unique risks.

“Popping in” to non-essential meetings. Compared with in-person meetings, video meetings make it easy for CEOs to log in or “stop by.” Although having the CEO show up in additional meetings may boost morale or demonstrate engagement, it can quickly become a problem. Effective CEOs delegate much of the work of managing business operations to deputies, and even before the pandemic, we observed too many CEOs spending too much time in operational reviews. CEOs who find video meetings efficient may exacerbate this problem by being tempted to attend too many of them. This behavior could continue (or grow worse) in a hybrid work environment.

Over-inviting subordinates to group meetings. Video meetings also make it easy to invite or add additional people. Even though asking more people feels more inclusive, it, too, can be a mistake. Smaller groups allow for candor and participation. That’s why, in our 2018 study, CEOs spent 63% of their meeting time with groups of five or fewer people. When meetings get too large, people stay muted and multitask. Engagement falls.

Over-relying on video for one-on-ones. In our 2018 study, CEOs spent 42% of their meeting time in one-on-one meetings, mostly with direct reports — people they know well. The conventional wisdom is that it’s easier to conduct video meetings with people you already know than to initiate a relationship or meet someone new on video.

But even if doing a “check-in” with a subordinate via video feels comfortable, it’s vital to conduct these meetings in person periodically. High-quality relationships involve aligning mutual expectations (each person knows what they expect of each other), increasing mutual understanding (each knows the other’s strengths, weaknesses, leadership styles), and developing mutual trust (each has confidence in the other’s motives and intentions). Such relationship-building benefits from the give-and-take and full co-presence that face-to-face interactions enable better than electronic interactions.

Rethink Assumptions about the Reasons to Travel

As more people have become vaccinated and the perceived risks of air travel have fallen, there’s been widespread debate about whether people will ever be as quick to hop on an airplane for a business meeting or industry conference as they were pre-2020. This New York Times article nicely summarizes survey results and viewpoints on this issue.

Although I agree with those who expect business travel never again to reach its pre-Covid peak, I worry about CEOs who take aim at internal meetings as the trips to avoid. Face-to-face meetings are helpful when building relationships because of the respect leaders shows by going out of their way to get to the other party’s locale. For similar reasons, we have long advised CEOs to visit subordinates in their offices instead of having every meeting in the higher-ranking person’s location.

The most common mistake we observed among the CEOs in our previous study was to underinvest in face-to-face time with their customers; I fear they will now risk underinvesting in face-to-face contact with their own employees, particularly teams far from headquarters. If they do, they risk becoming overly task-focused when dealing with people inside the company and forgetting that being in a relationship with their employees is just as important. I’d urge CEOs to periodically get on a plane to meet with internal teams, too.

One technique to be intentional about this is to set a target ratio for video and in-person meetings with different constituencies. For instance, CEOs who want to visit longstanding customers might aim for an 80/20 mix — 80% by video, 20% in person. When interacting with employees whom they meet only infrequently, such as those who work away from headquarters, perhaps 50/50 makes more sense. After 18 months of meeting primarily by video, boards might also aim for 50/50. Regardless of the numbers, the point is to choose a target intentionally, assess how well it’s working, and recalibrate if necessary.

Treat Alone Time and Personal Time Even More Protectively

Even before the pandemic, most CEOs had trouble maintaining boundaries between work time and personal time. For instance, in our study, CEOs worked on 79% of weekend days (3.9 hours per day, on average) and 70% of vacation days (2.4 hours per day, on average). Moreover, during working hours, CEOs’ calendars tend to be over-booked. On average, 75% of the leader’s time was allocated in advance, leaving limited time for spontaneous interactions or simply time to think.

The post-pandemic reset should be an opportunity for leaders to carve out more time for reflection, reading, and thinking — but there’s a risk that many will go in the other direction. Now that they can participate in video meetings from home, CEOs will require even more discipline to avoid doing this too often — especially those running global companies, who could conceivably join an overseas meeting at any hour of the day or night.

Likewise, there will be immediate savings in commuting costs for CEOs whose companies choose to limit the days employees go to the office. (In our study, the average CEO spent about seven hours per week commuting). Since this is “found time,” leaders may say yes to more meetings, quickly squandering it. Instead, they should consider reinvesting this in additional alone time.

They will also need discipline when it comes to outside requests. Our original article advised leaders to avoid spending too much time in non-essential activities such as leading civic groups or industry associations. (Our research found these can become time-management quagmires.) As meetings of these groups shifted to video, some CEOs’ resolve to limit these obligations may have weakened: It’s easier to say no to a speaking invitation when it requires cross-country travel than when it requires a quick video appearance. When in-person events once again become the norm, CEOs should go back to being more discriminating about what non-essential invitations they accept.

After CEOs complete logging their time for our study, we typically spend a couple of hours debriefing them. In that meeting, which CEO Tom Gentile of Sprint Aerosystems reflected on in our 2018 article, we look at how an individual CEO’s time choices compare with the average leader’s and then identify ways to make smarter time management decisions. Every leader who participated in our study found this reflection exercise illuminating — from uncovering blind spots in their use of time to discovering a handful of areas where they would like to make changes.

As CEOs return to a new hybrid workplace as the pandemic eases, they should reflect upon the best ways to incorporate the new rhythms and tools they’ve learned during the pandemic. They should beware the lure of returning to their pre-pandemic work habits or getting overly attached to things that appeared to work well during the pandemic but may be ineffective in the long run. Much as organizations need to be strategic in the hybrid work patterns they embrace, leaders need to be strategic about how they use their time in this new workplace.

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