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Ron Ashkenas

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Has the Recession Made Your Life Simpler?

Posted: 01/12/10 12:08 PM ET

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online

Have you changed your behavior as a result of the "great recession?" According to a survey from the Department of Labor and a New York Times/CBS News poll, Americans are spending less time shopping and more time engaging in simple, low-cost activities with family and friends.

These include "organizational, civic and religious" pursuits; home-based hobbies like gardening and cooking; family sports such as hiking; and cultural endeavors like going to museums and movies. For many people this may be an obvious result of having less money to spend. But the dramatic climb in the savings rate (from less than one percent of income at the end of 2007 to more than four percent through most of 2009) suggests that even those with extra money are acting differently.

From an economic point of view, these shifts are generally good news. Americans seem to have learned (at least for now) that highly-leveraged spending sprees are not sustainable and have painful consequences. This may help dampen future speculative bubbles and provide a basis for reducing debt over time.

The real questions, however, are whether these behavioral shifts signal new patterns for American society and how these shifts might trigger changes in organizations. For example, many companies depend on large cadres of workaholic professionals and middle managers who put in long hours, are available around the clock, and are willing to sacrifice family and personal time for business activities.

Furthermore, managers in most U.S.-based organizations take either less vacation time, or less consecutive time off than their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere. But now that these managers have experienced the psychic satisfaction of less work and more personal time -- even if it was forced by recessionary cutbacks and less available cash -- will they be willing to return to the intense treadmill?

A Boston Consulting Group experiment, reported in Harvard Business Review in October 2009, suggests that it may be beneficial not only for managers and professionals to spend more time away from work, but also for the organization. In this study, BCG required its most intensely workaholic team members to take pre-scheduled, regular (one day per week) and complete (no phone calls or emails) time off during the course of a project. Not surprisingly, after some personal adjustments, the consultants enjoyed the time off. However, BCG also found that the project teams improved their communications and developed more innovative and efficient ways of working with each other.

Similarly, a series of pilots on flexible work arrangements sponsored by a non-profit group called the BOLD Initiative found that when teams were given the freedom to arrange work schedules around their personal needs and desires, it not only increased employee satisfaction but also improved team productivity.

Obviously there is no definitive answer as to whether the personal shifts sparked by the recession will be permanent. It may be in the best interest of companies, however, to encourage these changes in behavior with managers, professionals, and other high-pressured work groups. Who knows, for many of us, less work may not only be more satisfying, but also more productive.

Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Robert H. Schaffer & Associates a Stamford, Connecticut consulting firm and the author of Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done.

 

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