Contributing writer

5 ways CIOs can help eliminate a culture of busyness

Jul 20, 20239 mins
CIOEmployee ExperienceIT Leadership

Busyness can be perceived as a badge of honor. But being busy doesn’t always mean being more productive. So how can the modern CIO help organizations avoid this trap?

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At the turn of the 20th century, economists predicted that living a life of leisure would be the ultimate aspiration for the elite. These same economists suggested that those who were able to take more time off from work would be considered the most successful.

Now the inverse seems to be the case. Today, those who are seen to exert more effort are deemed to have greater relevance. But in business, evaluating employees based on how busy they are isn’t necessarily an effective measure of performance. For the modern CIO, ensuring that being busy is aligned with being productive demands a proactive approach.

Regarding this culture of busyness, many CIOs say that working longer hours is regularly associated with harder work. Many workplaces still value this idea of compliance, where employees are seen to be more dedicated if they’re the first in the office in the morning and the last to leave at the end of the day. “We need to shift this focus away from compliance and toward value,” says Warren Hero, CIO and CDO at law firm Webber Wentzel. “For the CIO, unlocking value means making sure that everyone is in the right seat on the right bus so they can contribute optimally, not maximally.” Others agree. It’s not about working harder; it’s about working smarter.

Below, these CIOs share five approaches businesses should embrace to stop glorifying busyness and focus on outcomes and results instead.

Get rid of the noise

The CIO role is to spearhead the implementation of collaboration tools that allow employees to communicate and work together seamlessly, even when they aren’t in the same office, says Helen Constantinides, Group CIO at AVBOB Mutual Assurance Society. “We also need to provide the necessary training and support to help employees use these collaboration tools to manage their time successfully,” she says. “But this doesn’t mean that collaboration platforms can eliminate busyness. In fact, all of the notifications from these solutions can actually add to employee stress.”

Peter Robinson, VP of digital enablement at Avnet, believes that technology can alleviate busyness, but it can also make things worse. “So many of us are getting constant email and messages from different platforms and applications,” he says. “While this might appear to keep us connected, it doesn’t make us more productive.”  

And Kim Sim, CIO at the Mr Price Group says, “As CIOs, we provide the tools that allow people to be ‘always on,’ which can add to the problem.” But these tools also provide insights into how people work. CIOs can use this information to help people be more efficient. For example, you can deploy productivity tools to look at individuals in the same team who have different outputs and understand why one person is producing so much more than another. By doing so, you can identify and eliminate any sticking points that contribute to busyness and hamper productivity.

CIOs must always question if the applications they design and use are adding to, or eliminating, a culture of busyness. “When we develop applications, we think about engagement and send people countless notifications to keep that application front of mind,” says Hero. “But these notifications can be distracting and rob people of precious time. From a design perspective, and particularly from a user interface design perspective, we need to rethink what engagement looks like and whether or not it’s valuable.”

Give people time to think

“I believe we’ll get the best work out of our people if they have more time to think,” says Shabhana Thaver, CIO at international banking and wealth management group Investec. And Giulio di Giannatale, CIO at financial services company Sanlam Indie, agrees. Just because there’s space in someone’s calendar doesn’t mean it should be filled. “I feel like we’re training professional meeting takers and forcing people to complete their work semi-focused because they’re sitting on back-to-back calls for hours,” he says. “This utterly destroys innovation.” As CIO, di Giannatale is looking to address this by booking out focused time in people’s calendars both company-wide and across specific roles. In addition, forcing employees to have a clear agenda when they call a meeting, and making sure action items are documented once the meeting is complete, also ensure meetings are more meaningful. “If there is no action or outcome, the meeting was a waste of time and money,” he says.

If your teams are spending their entire day in meetings, then the only time they have to do actual work will happen outside of working hours, says Sim. This is a major contributor to busyness culture.

According to Max Chan, Avnet CIO, employees became accustomed to book meeting after meeting during the pandemic because it was easy to end one and then click a button to join another right away. But this isn’t healthy, he says. It’s also not practical as many of us return to the office because we need time to walk to a different meeting room, take a breath or grab a cup of coffee.

If we want to eliminate this culture of busyness, says Chan, we need to be clear about our intentions. When he sends an email after hours, he makes sure to include a subject line that clearly states the intention of the message and, thus, what the person needs to do with this information. “I state my intent so people immediately know if something is urgent or not.”

Partner with leadership to drive the right outcomes

As leaders, it’s crucial to prioritize outcomes achieved, especially in the world of hybrid and remote work, adds Constantinides. “Rather than fixating on the process, we should concentrate on the results,” she says. “An outcome-based model provides employees with the confidence and autonomy to excel in their work.” For her, this entails establishing clear expectations and objectives, communicating them effectively, empowering teams with accountability, measuring outcomes, and offering clear feedback.

I don’t think this is only a CIO issue; it’s a leadership issue, says Thaver. In many business environments, perceptions of busyness have existed for years. Eliminating these ideas demands that leaders push a culture of learning, unlearning and relearning so an environment is created where it’s possible, and encouraged, for people to change bad habits.

According to Naren Gangavarapu, CIO at the Northern Beaches Council, CIOs must partner with the leadership and other important business stakeholders to manage expectations and make sure that outcomes are the most important metric for success. “In IT, where operations have to run 24/7, a focus on busyness leads to burnout and has a negative impact on the wellbeing of teams, which can have a ripple effect on how well the business functions and how effectively the business can meet their customers’ needs,” he says. For Gangavarapu, the CIO must push business to ask questions like:

  • Are we doing the right things?
  • Are we doing things the right way?
  • Are we doing things well?
  • Are we getting any benefits from our actions?

Focus on things that add real value

Speaking of benefits, di Giannatale highlights the importance of avoiding work you might think is important but don’t know how it adds value. “In the software development life cycle process, people will regularly start creating tasks in development backlogs just to fill time because they feel like the backlogs are getting too thin,” he says. “This often means people have to work overtime to complete work that isn’t valuable, despite being deemed ‘important.’” For di Giannatale, one way to avoid this is to have a session to determine any outstanding technical debt in the feature team and then force a value discussion. “New business features always look like the target, but they need to drive real value or you’re just writing code to look good,” he says. “Sometimes there’s more value in tackling technical debt. Here, the definition of value is important because money is not the only form of value the business should chase.”

When we look at what people are spending time on, we need to ask if you’re improving how the business is running, and if you’re growing and transforming the business. For Robinson, if you work 40 hours a week and not doing any of these things, it might be time to rethink your workflows and how you spend your time.

Find hacks that work

CIOs must think about how to multiply time and use time as effectively as possible. “In the past, when I used to have one-on-ones with my team, I would sit across a table or do a video call and we’d chat for about an hour,” Hero says. Today he does one-on-one walking meetings. It takes about 22 minutes to get around the block and he believes he and his colleagues have had more in-depth conversations walking around the block than they do in a longer meeting sitting at a boardroom table. “This is because walking engages a different part of your brain so you’re more likely to approach the problem from a fresh perspective and come up with different and unique ideas,” he says. “When we think about how the CIO can up productivity, we often assume the answer is to throw technology at the problem, but we also need to focus on the human.”

For Hero, CIOs can also help to eliminate busyness by leveraging data to make decision-making smoother and simpler. “If we can gather all the data, combine it and then present it to our colleagues and teams, highlighting the different pros and the cons, it’ll be far easier for them to make the right decision, quickly,” he says.