Dimensions: Time

You can find a lot of materials on time management and organizational culture in the internet. At some point you may have read a few just to gain perspective into how other people are structuring their time. Tips and tricks are always welcome.

As the number of popular psychology articles in this direction increases daily, I thought it would be useful to revisit a topic I wrote about a while back. It’s back to basics, and builds on the work of Edward T Hall, who has offered us a lot of ideas to think about. When reading about time management I often find myself coming back to his ideas and cross-cultural research. In this time of (virtual) team work, it seems proper to be concerned with the way our working style fits in with the rest of the team. All this can seem like an endless topic, but let us start with differentiation between two types of time, which can be observed and present a starting point for assessing what kind of situation we are experiencing.

Monochronic vs Polychronic time

Hall’s research indicates that we are having to work with people from different cultures and there are differences to be considered. Moreover, the speed at which we interact with each other through technology is changing what was undoubtedly valid just a decade ago (alright, maybe two decades). It is important to know and be able to view tasks through the eyes of your team members. Easier said than done. When dealing with the concept of time management, please remember that a lot of external factors affect our judgement and can make us change our working style, if only for the time being.

Monochonic time is though of as sequential. You focus on the series of tasks you have to perform in order to meet a goal, so you do one thing at a time. Polychronic time is for people who attempt a full multitasking maneuver – you still have a goal, or goals, in sight, but you go about it while performing all tasks simultaneously. Primarily these two categories were linked to another culture style dimension, according to Hall, and this was context. I cannot say I am fully convinced if this is still valid, and I will tell you why.

Monochronic culture styles are said to be very punctual, paying much more attention to the job at hand. Human relationships are less valued than finishing the job precisely on time, and with the desired result. People from this culture are supposed to seldom borrow or lend things.

On the other side of this are polychronic people, who value relatonships more and tend to prolong processes if this is needed. They are easily distracted.

I intentionally leave the countries which were initially linked to a particular time management preference, as the lines have blurred a lot since the research has been published. Because when it comes to getting things done, you are most likely to face a mix of the two systems. This is why managing time has now become so difficult. Only a few organizations can say that they have a single time preference in the work culture. As projects have become multi-layered and decision-makers on so many levels are involved, it can be surprising how time flies. An example of how both time management systems come together can be found in project management methodologies in the IT industry. From Waterfall to DevOps, many of the developments concern not only the technical aspects of work, but also how we manage time. Given the complexity of tasks and the number of stakeholders involved, this is not surprising. Companies are concerned with utilization, and have been for a long time now. On the other side of software development are the users, who are often affected by downtime or the frequency of updates of service provided to them. This has significant implication not for their views on relationships with other people and how these are managed, but on how they structure their time for completing tasks. So this is how polychronic time sneaks within the monochronic management framework.

I know what you must think now – IT is definitely a different island, and we cannot generalize. But this is exactly it – we cannot turn the table completely around, as multiple industries use professionals with the same predisposition to one or the other time management systems.

Another good instance of this mix we are witnessing can be the task of choosing a supplier. It seems pretty straightforward, but it can involve simultaneous negotiations and managing the contact and handover to other people. Thus a simple task of choosing a supplier who offers service or production at the best price/quality value can turn into a lengthy process, and this can apply to industries outside of IT, too. I am not sure if there is a role today which does not involve managing at least one relationship, which is crucial to you or somebody else having a job. If this is the case, maybe we can argue that this also has elements of a polychronic time management?

The collision between these two systems in modern days can be a factor in many contemporary social and psychological issues – depression, burnout, work-life balance. So above all else, please consider what are you trying to achieve, and how your environment is structured. This will later lead us to context and its importance.

So, what time are you on?


Photo by CGP Grey

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