New perception of time in projects

Looking at how work was organized by past generations in an industrial context, employees or workers often worked in the same company for a lifetime, working hours were strictly regulated and followed the rhythm of the time clock, which had to be operated when entering and leaving the company. Working hours were interrupted by breaks, vacations were dictated, often by periods of work breaks in the company and, if necessary, also depending on the seasons, contingent on the composition of work. The entire life had to align itself with this rhythm and was largely determined by others, by superiors, by work and its rhythm. There was a clear distinction between work and leisure time, which could often be clearly recognized by the clothing, motivation and behavior, whether one did something for oneself or for the employer.

In recent years, the number and importance of projects has increased significantly. In science, we speak of the projectification of our society or even a projectified economy. Unnoticed, this also changes our perception and attitude towards time. Working in projects shapes “zeitgeist”, to use a common word of the German language.

Projects are limited in time, so work focuses on the time between the start of a project and its end. Projects permeate professional life. Work is characterized by a succession of projects; sometimes more, sometimes less, but imperceptibly, project patterns weave their way into working life without sufficient attention being paid to this pattern. Often employees are primarily interested in the realization of projects and if another company has exciting projects to offer, then employees tend to change companies.

Depending on the phase of the project, the distribution of participants in different time zones, the workload per project phase or work package, there are very different time requirements that often override the usual working hours, vacation times, etc. in the rest of an organization. Especially with virtual and distributed project work, boundaries between work and private life become blurred. Without a doubt, it also depends on the project content. If it is about projects with people for people, then on the one hand the separation might make less sense because the motivation to do something good increases, on the other hand exactly this can also lead to work overload.

How is time planned and controlled? In projects, it is not so much the time of the year or the time clock that plays a role, but the project plans and their time expectations for intermediate/final deadlines, the cooperation of different stakeholders, possibly distributed across different time zones and with different understandings of time. In projects, there is self-monitoring to ensure that the agreed deadlines are met; external monitoring is carried out by customers and in the direction of suppliers but is also linked to delivery dates and less to working hours.

In some projects, work is deliberately done around the clock and different time zones are exploited by passing the work on to colleagues in the next time zone. This can compress time and speed up the completion of work, possibly with fatal consequences for the health and quality of life of those involved in the project. Particularly in times of the Covid 19 pandemic, it becomes clear what consequences this can have for families and individuals. Everyone is challenged to bring the work rhythm in line with their own (bio-)rhythm and to master the tightrope walk between a healthy and unhealthy work schedule.

Freed from the time clock, project managers and teams must find a rhythm that is appropriate for the project, the cooperation, and the performance of all participants and at the same time synchronized with the surrounding organization. It is precisely here that tension lines are drawn; between the dynamic project world, and the timed system of the routine world. This synchronization is an important task of project planning and control.

In project-oriented organizations, awareness should be honed for different perceptions of time, the need for dynamic coordination between the two worlds, and the consequences for the associated time management. We should become aware of what this means for us, how we deal with time, on the one hand, how we emancipate ourselves from the monotonous time stipulation of the time clock and, on the other hand, how we use the new freedom in dealing with pace for ourselves personally and find our own rhythm.

Author: Reinhard Wagner, CEO of Tiba

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