Set them free

Oct 06, 2016

Open the LockArbitrary or unduly bureaucratic rules demotivate employees, impose unnecessary constraints, and can even spark an office rebellion. Years ago, I started work at a new office where I had two administrative assistants supporting me. One late afternoon in my first week, I walked out of my office to go speak with a colleague and noticed one of the assistants sitting at his desk with a notebook at the ready. He was just sitting there. I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was waiting for me to go home. I was dumbfounded. In a very caring, but not-so-subtle manner, I ran him out of the office and told him to never do that again. He was not allowed to simply wait for me to leave. If he was done with his work for the day, he could leave at any time, even if it was before the end of the “normal” business day.
  • Tell your employees to go home. Your employees have lives outside of the firm. Encourage them to attend life events, such as evening classes, youth sporting events, or midday school events. If their personal life is in order, chances are their work life will fall into place.
  • Make your expectations explicit. Let your employees know what is expected of them, so there’s no guessing. According to Zweig Group’s Policies, Procedures, and Benefits Survey, 97 percent of firms had a policy manual, so use that space to make your expectations clear. Make your policy manual electronic, so anyone can refer to it at any time.
The culture of that organization had been such that you were expected to stay at the office until after the boss went home. If your boss left at 6 p.m., you left at 6:15. When you left at 6:15, those under you left at 6:30. And so on. The idea was that “you never know when the boss might need something.” Crazy! The same went for the morning. If the boss normally showed up at 7 a.m., you showed up at 6:30 to prepare for the questions he may have when he arrived. Likewise, those working for you showed up at 6 to be ready for your questions. Utter insanity. All of this meant that if you were at the bottom of the ladder, your day began before 6 a.m. and ended sometime after 6:30 p.m. It’s hard to motivate younger professionals when they’re caught in an accordion time trap.
  • “Normal” hours for your business need not be restrictive. Just because your office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. doesn’t mean everyone needs to be there the entire time. As long as someone is available to handle calls from clients, you’ve got it covered. It’s okay to have flexible schedules.
  • Try to understand what your employees do to support you. You may be surprised at the things they will do to keep you looking good.
In another office, I watched a department manager direct her salaried employees to remain at their desks until 5:30 p.m. every day. She thought they had been leaving too early each day. In reality, her team members worked hard every day and they were exhausted by the end of the normal business day. So these outstanding engineers and project managers did what others might do when pushed too hard under arbitrary rules. They rebelled. At 5 p.m., when people from the other departments were heading home, they put away their work and sat there. Some stared at the walls of their cubicles. Others read books. The lucky ones with windows simply stared out of them until 5:30 p.m. At exactly 5:30, they left the office. This game of defiance lasted for about two weeks until the department manager’s boss called her into his office and taught her about the inverse relationship between arbitrary rules and productivity.
  • Set them free. Holding your employees captive in the office until some magical point in time does not make them want to produce better results. There will be times when you need to put in 14-16 hour days to get a job done, but most days shouldn’t be that way, so don’t needlessly burn out your employees.
I once had a boss whose office was two time zones behind mine. He expected me to be in my office until he left at the end of the day “just in case he needed to reach me.” I was supposed to wait for his call (that may never come) until after 7 p.m. I somewhat sarcastically reminded him that there was this really cool invention created by Motorola decades ago, called the cellular telephone. And I didn’t need to be in my office to use it! Since I was 2,786 miles away from him, he really had no idea if I was in my office or not. Surprisingly, he pushed back on my suggestion that he call me on my cell phone and not my office line. Eventually, he relented and began calling my cell phone whenever he couldn’t reach me in my office.
  • Unhook the tether. Provide your employees with a cell phone. According to Zweig Group’s 2016 Cell Phone & Mobile Devices Survey, 96.5 percent of respondents stated they use a cell phone for work-related business, yet less than 15 percent of partners and principals and only 10 percent of project managers are provided one by their firm.
Don’t think you have any arbitrary rules? Ask your employees. They’ll tell you exactly what those “unwritten” rules are and which ones need to go away. Bill Murphey is Zweig Group’s director of education. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1166 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here to subscribe or get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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