Episode 308 – The Future of Time with Helen Beedham

Helen Beedham‘I delighted in writing it. That doesn’t mean I found it easy.’

Time management has been seen as an issue for individuals for too long: Helen Beedham argues that the real issue is systemic. The way that organisations manage and value time, she says, is broken. And it’s not just a productivity issue, it’s hurting our wellbeing and working against inclusion and diversity, too. 

Developing that insight into a book was something of a rollercoaster – as her family will attest… 

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Helen’s site: https://www.helenbeedham.com/

Helen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HelenBeedham

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge April 2022: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Helen Beedham who writes, speaks and advises on how to create more inclusive, productive workplaces, where everyone can flourish. For the past 25 years as a management consultant and then chair of a city-wide professional network, she’s led change programs for FTSE 100 businesses and regularly brought together heads of HR, diversity, inclusion and wellbeing to exchange market-leading practises.

Helen is regularly cited in business and HR publications and was recently commissioned by the Executive Director of London Business School’s Leadership Institute to assist them with selected research studies. And her new book is called The Future of Time: How reworking time can help you boost productivity, diversity, and wellbeing.

So, first of all, welcome, Helen, how are you?

Helen Beedham: Thank you Alison. I am really well and I’m so excited to be here today.

I’ve been listening to fellow authors talk about their books over the last year and a half, since I’ve got to know your podcast. And I can’t believe It’s my turn, the day is nearly here.

Alison Jones: It’s great. You know the score, you know what’s going to happen now. We’re going to talk about the book, we’re going to talk about writing, but yes, brilliant. Good.

And it’s really, really lovely also, always when I talk to somebody who’s come through the proposal challenge and published with us and I sort of know the book and I get to hear more of the story from your side. So I am really really looking forward to that as well.

Now, unfortunately, we’re speaking in January and it’s literally I think the day or two before the book is due to arrive on our desks. So everybody will have loved, I mean I think nobody can hear your title The Future of Time without pricking their ears up. It’s such an arresting title.

Just wave the cover at us, if looking at this on video, you’ll be able to see it.

Helen Beedham: Yes.

Alison Jones: Amazing cover

Helen Beedham: It does arrive on my doorstep tomorrow.

Alison Jones: And we should say that’s an A4 sheet of paper. It isn’t that big.

Helen Beedham: Yes. yes, correct. I hope not or I will not have room to store it all.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. Well, first of all, I mean it is as I say such an arresting title. Just tell us how the concept for the book came about. Why did you want to write it?

Helen Beedham: Yes, sure. So I had been thinking about this over the summer of 2020 and thinking about my own experiences of time throughout my career. I started off briefly for two years, working in retail at Harrods, where I had to clock in and clock out at the start and end of every day, it was literally like punching a card.

And then I went into consulting for 15 years, management consulting, where I had to do time sheets and account for how I spent my day, every day, in six-minute increments. So that became a total part of my life. And then as a working parent, after my daughter was born 10 years ago, I had that whole working parent juggle, trying to manage my time and work and my time with my family.

And it got me thinking about other people’s experiences of how they manage their time at work. And I’m lucky in that during my consulting career and then running professional networks in the City of London, I did a lot of research and had so many conversations with people about this. About how they manage their time so they could work productively, but also have a bit of a genuine home life as well and time for themselves to look after their wellbeing.

And so this idea was born that something we’re not really paying attention to is how we all spend our time at work. We’re very good at talking about individual time management. That’s something we’re all very comfortable with and we all get great advice from different individuals and websites about this, you know, productivity tips, and this will transform your day. And a lot of those are really valuable.

But the bit we’re not talking about is the interactions, the interface between my time and your time and other colleagues’ time and how we manage time across teams and across a whole organization. So the idea was kind of evolving through the summer. And I was chatting to my husband, who works in the same field as me in kind of managing organizations, in management consulting, and it kept evolving.

And then I had a conversation with another Practical Inspiration author Grace Marshall, whose book Struggle is brilliant. And she mentioned you to me and said you must try Alison’s Proposal Challenge. And I thought, well I’ll check that out. And that was probably late August, 2020. And I think within the space of four weeks, I’d gone from booking into the Proposal Challenge, and I’ll say more about that very happily, to having the whole proposal ready. And then the offer from you of a publishing contract.

So that’s how it came about, actually in the end, quite quickly.

Alison Jones: And actually you wrote the book incredibly quickly as well, really. It is interesting, isn’t it, the 2020, you know, I was thinking, ‘in the summer of 2020’. It’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot recently. It really gave people time and focus in a sense that, you know… So I think it’s brought a lot to light and as you say, time has always been something that we have fretted about as individuals and tried to fix as individuals and felt obscurely guilty that we were poor at our time management.

I, until I read your proposal, well until we talked about the concepts in the group, in the proposal group. I never really thought about it as a systemic thing, that there could be organizational time which needed managing and which nobody was really taking a responsibility for.

And I think what’s interesting as well is the way that the pandemic has thrown everything up in the air and suddenly we are rethinking how we run our organizations. So I mean, the classic thing, I guess, is as we say that the pandemic accelerated trends that were already in progress. Do you think that’s the case with how we look at time as well? Or is this something completely new?

Helen Beedham: Yes. I think that’s very much the case. I think it’s definitely accelerated and prompted us to look better and more clearly at our working time. But I think there were a lot of other trends that were pushing us in that direction anyway. And I write about some of them in the book. And so I think it’s become more urgent, more pressing. There’s a stronger business need now, or awareness at least, amongst senior leaders, that this is something we haven’t been paying enough attention to.

And you’re absolutely right. I mean, the central point of the book is that we need to stop thinking about fixing the individual who frankly, you know, in many cases, is kind of left shouldering the burden of trying to manage these impossible work volumes and have a home life and are left to be the buffer between organizational demands and the limits of their working day.

And we need to think about it much more systemically and say, actually how are we designing our organizations to help people work effectively? How are we helping them to understand the priorities to focus on? But also other things that are equally important, not just productivity, but around our wellbeing.

You know, how are we allowing time for downtime, for creating social bonds, for helping people feel they belong to a community that really values them? And how do we reflect that in all our people management processes and programs. How do we support people throughout their career? How do we think about time not just day in, day out, but over the year and over people’s whole working lives?

A big part of what I talk about is getting away from this very short term focus in every aspect of our work towards a much longer term orientation.

Alison Jones: And I think the impact of how we manage time on our wellbeing and our productivity, these are things we need to grapple with, but we can sort of see immediately the link there. And one of the things that really grabbed me about your concept and what I was fascinated to read about in the book, is the impact of time management on diversity and inclusion in an organization.

So for people who haven’t read it yet, tell us about that.

Helen Beedham: Yes, sure. And it’s interesting because other people have said the same to me. When I started talking about the book that I was writing, a lot of people intuitively got the link between time management and productivity and time management and wellbeing. But the link between that and diversity was something they were curious to understand better.

And it’s something I worked very hard to research and explain in the book. So in the book I describe how in organizations we have a time culture, and these are our kind of unconscious norms around how we think about a managed time. So our behaviors, our attitudes, our assumptions, and the way we value time.

We’re not very good at a acknowledging that and talking about it. And it creates what I describe as time blindness in our organization. Because we’re not having those conversations about how we’re all spending our time and the impact of my time on other people’s time, it creates a certain way of working and what the problem with that is that it creates winners and losers.

And depending on your background, on your profile, on your gender, on whether you’ve got caring responsibilities, on your working pattern, whether you’re full-time, part-time… Some people are better advantaged or equipped, to succeed in this time culture than others and other people have a much harder time getting in and getting on in their careers.

And I heard this in many interviews I did. I interviewed over 20 people about the ideas in the book and to get their personal experiences. And people from a black or minority ethnic background were telling me this is so true, we have to do so much more with our time than our white peers in order to access the same opportunities.

So the more I dug into this, in my desk research and my phone interviews, the more I realized that there was a very strong link to the way we manage time at work and the impact that has on different demographics. And it’s not just a problem for those individuals. It becomes a really big problem for organizations because they have these diversity goals that they’re trying to achieve, better gender balance, better racial balance, a better social diversity mix within the organization.

But the big problem is that we’re actually making very slow progress in this country and in other countries to closing those gaps. And this is part of the reason why: we’re not creating environments which help people from all sorts of different backgrounds and with different circumstances, to have a level playing field and to get on in their careers.

So that’s the link with diversity and inclusion.

Alison Jones: It’s brilliant. And it always reminds me as well of that story about the two young fish swimming along and the elderly fish comes by and says, morning boys, how’s the water? And they swim on and one of them goes: what’s water?

Helen Beedham: Yes.

Alison Jones: Time in an organization has got that sense that you know, it’s what we swim in, but we don’t see it. We don’t think about it.

So yes, if we’re going to change our cultures, then we have to really kind of see everything as being up for grabs and understand how those kind of baked-in assumptions that have come from the fifties, you know, from the sort of beginnings of industrialization really…

Helen Beedham: Yes, that’s right.

Alison Jones: …that shaped who we are and how we work. Fascinating.

Helen Beedham: And something I talk about is becoming more time aware as individuals and organizations, and that can be reflected in more time-intelligent leadership and creating very time-savvy teams for example.

Alison Jones: Yes, and I love the way that you highlight the time defects and you say the solutions and so on, and you’ve got some terrific appendices in there, you know, and I grew up in reference books, that’s where I kind of became an editor and I always love a good appendix and what actually, what I also love about your book is the sort of summaries. You’ve got, you’re very time aware and you are very reader friendly and you’ve got what I think would be terrifying to most people, you’ve got kind of an entire summary of the book at the end. It’s like this is what we’re talking about.

Which I thought was interesting. Tell me about the thinking behind that as well as the sort of ends: you know, you summarize each part, but you’ve got that thing at the end, which is the whole book amost.

Helen Beedham: Yes, that’s right. So the first appendix, well, the goal there, my idea there was to have the book on one page. I’d seen that in another book and I thought what a brilliant idea, just to have one page where you digest at all. So I carefully wrote it out and made sure, you know, in my draft manuscript, it fitted, and then forgot about typesetting and page layout and discovered there was no way it was going to fit on one page.

So I had this lunchtime conundrum discussion with my husband saying, ‘it won’t fit on a page and I can’t call it book on a page anymore. What do I do?’ So he came up with the brilliant The Book in Brief, which is now spread across two pages, but really it’s just one page of text. And it was a really good exercise for me as a writer, and a speaker as well, to distill it down to one page because that’s essentially, you know, my two-minute elevator pitch about the book if somebody asks ‘What’s it about?’

So that’s the first appendix and then there are three other appendices. One of them lists all 24 time solutions that I provide in the book. So in the book, in part two which is Time Reworked, I describe the six traits of time-focused organizations, which are, at a broad level, are the things that organizations do well to help them manage time well. And then I break that down into 24 very practical solutions that organizations can go and implement. And so there’s a list of all of those 24 in one of the appendices.

And then there’s also some key messages about how it helps boost productivity, diversity and wellbeing to help you if you’re wanting to use this book to then have some conversations in your organization about it, to get some of those key messages across. And then the fourth appendix is a whole set of tools that, like a toolkit, that will help you as a manager or leader that you can just pick up and use in different meetings and discussions as well.

So I wanted the book not just to spell out the problem, but to really give people a clear understanding of what to do about it. Because I read really widely and I love business books, but what always bugs me is when I read, you know, 11 and a half chapters, brilliantly written about the problem and then in the last closing few pages, there’s, here’s what we do about it.

And I’m like, no, I want more of that. So I thought that’s what I’ll try and give to people. And also there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this. I can’t just say, Okay this is what it needs to look like. Here’s how, you know, here’s the answer for you. It’s very unique to each organization, to their industry, to what they’re trying to achieve.

So in part three, Time To Act, I set out some broad principles, some timelines, some tools and really help people explain how they tailor it to what they’re trying to achieve and what their unique time culture problems are.

Alison Jones: And that comes across in the case studies as well, doesn’t it? This is how we do it. Could we This is how they do it. Yes, it’s really interesting, but what it does reveal, I think, which is interesting, which I love, is that just relentless focus on the ‘so what’, on the how people are going to use this, as you say there’s nothing more frustrating than finishing a book which has really inspired you and given you a sense of wanting to make changes in your own organization, but then you have to do all the work to work out how you translate that.

So I think, you know, being able to take that and talk about it to your team and have those tools to hand and do a presentation based on it, is super, super helpful.

And let’s talk about the writing Helen, because you know, I always like to.

Helen Beedham: Yes.

Alison Jones: How did you find it? What did you learn about yourself?

Helen Beedham: So I would say I loved it, actually. I always wanted to write a book from way back and I always thought it would be a children’s novel and I’d tried to start it various times and got nowhere. And then it dawned on me over the summer of 2020 that actually the one thing that I have been doing endlessly in my career is writing in the business world, writing employee communications, writing proposals, and pitches, writing reports.

I suddenly had this light bulb moment where I thought: I have this expertise and I know how to write for a business audience, and why don’t I put those together and make it a business book first? And that was kind of in parallel with the idea about The Future of Time. So that’s really what led me into giving it a go and writing it.

And I just delighted in writing it. That doesn’t mean I found it easy. Some days were a real uphill struggle. But I found it overall a very energizing and creatively rewarding experience. I felt like I was scratching a deeply held itch and it was really satisfying and it was also quite cathartic in a sense or restorative in that I was writing throughout the second of our lockdowns.

So through the autumn of 2020, and the whole spring of 2021, managing homeschooling at the same time, so very confined to the home, obviously. It was a very collaborative process for me, the writing. I was, as I say, interviewing people and speaking with people a lot over Zoom. So that gave me a sense of social connection when I was really missing that enormously.

And at the same time, when I came upstairs to my study here to write for my two hours a day, I had very compressed windows to write in. And it was wonderful to just do a deep dive into writing and block out what was going on with the pandemic and the stresses around that.

So it was a really positive experience overall. Yes, loved it.

Alison Jones: It’s a nice demonstration, actually, of one of your points in the book as well, isn’t it, about that sort of fragmentation and the distraction, and the just, you know, how we expect people to work in offices. Actually when you get those two-hour blocks of time to focus on your deep work, it’s incredibly restorative and energizing.

Helen Beedham: It is. I would add that I definitely went on an emotional roller coaster with each chapter and it took me about half the book to spot this was happening. So every time I started a chapter, I’d have it all mapped out. So I knew what I wanted to write about, but I would be just faced full of doubt, thinking, oh, how do I start it? I’m never going to master this chapter. It feels such a mountain to climb and I’d come downstairs at lunchtime, say I can’t do it. I just can’t. I know I did the last chapter. I just can’t do this chapter. My husband would say, okay, my daughter would say, okay.

And then I’d write the first page of that first chapter. And then it would all be all you know, it would all get so much easier after that. And then by the end of a chapter, I’d be on a total high and I’d come back down, bouncing down the stairs, going I’ve done it. Oh, it’s such a great chapter. I so enjoyed that. My family would be like, beating me up, going, you know, there is a bit of a pattern emerging here and I wised up to that.

So after halfway in the book I learned to recognize that. That it was okay, that I felt so daunted, you know, starting a chapter afresh. It did feel like a challenge and that was okay. I also knew that as soon as I got stuck into it, that would start to ease.

Alison Jones: And such a great lesson. I’m just, I’m laughing at your son and your husband. going yes, Okay. But you’re right, that sort of recognition that the story you are telling yourself about how impossible it is and how you’ve got nothing and so on. The only way around it is to just to start isn’t it?

And as soon as you start, then the ideas come and yes…

Helen Beedham: And I think talking to people as I wrote it was a huge help in that because on the days that I felt filled with doubt that am I writing anything that’s any good? Is anyone going to find this helpful? You know, I had real moments of doubt about that, like I know lots of other writers do. The conversations I had with people where even just briefly I practised explaining what the book was about and what I was trying to describe, just to hear people say, oh, that really resonates with me, or gosh, you’ve so put your finger on something or here’s what I think, you know, here’s a way I think you might want to take that or explore it further: it was so affirming and it really gave me a confidence boost that yes, I am on the right thing here, I am onto something here. And it is something that people will enjoy talking about. So that was hugely valuable to me.

Alison Jones: Yes and I remember you coming along to quite a few campfires as well with your head in your hands and other times when you sort of bounced in going, oh yes, it’s going terrific and it’s so, you’re so right: the emotions just come along for the ride, don’t they, you can’t trust them, but there they are and you use them when they’re useful and you kind of, you know, just plough on despite them when they’re not.

Helen Beedham: And I think if you’ve written a book before, then you kind of know what to expect, right? You’ve got something, some past experience to help you through it. But this was such a steep learning curve for me. You know, just the whole experience of writing a book, the process and how it worked and how I would feel writing it and watching it come together that I didn’t have anything to compare it to. Not something that big, I’d never written a thesis or a PhD or anything. So it’s the first time I’d ever written something that huge.

So breaking it down into the little chunks each day and each week and having my timeline of when and how I was going to produce it, that really helped me mentally get over the hurdle and see my progress. That was really exciting.

Alison Jones: Yes, you’re right. Sometimes you think you’re sort of ploughing on and getting nowhere and actually when you turn around and look behind you, you realize, oh my goodness, actually, there’s sort of three chapters, three chapters done, and another two drafted and yes, that’s quite massive progress.

So if you were going to give some advice to somebody who’s listening and perhaps is further back than you, but you know, struggling with their first business book, what’s the one tip you’d give them?

Helen Beedham: So my one tip would be to think about your book as a jigsaw. And I’m really sorry if you hate jigsaws, because this metaphor is not going to work for you. So just ignore the jigsaw bit if it doesn’t work. But I found myself realizing that one morning I would be down in the detail, writing a section of a chapter and thinking about the anecdotes and the data that I was putting into that chapter and right down in the detail, fitting it together.

And then later that day or the next day, I’d be zoomed out, looking at how that section fitted with another section, or even sometimes moving bits of data around to a different chapter, because I thought it better supported that argument there. And I realized in my head it is a bit like doing a jigsaw because sometimes you are down doing a small section, a little patch of the picture, but then you need to zoom out again and look at the overall picture and see, is it an end piece, a corner piece, is it a bit in the middle? And moving stuff around. And the same frustrations, frankly, you get with doing jigsaws where you feel like you get a flurry of great progress and then you might hit a patch where you feel like it’s just taking you forever to move forward with it.

So that would be my bit of advice.

Alison Jones: It’s, I mean, a jigsaw is such an overused metaphor in a sense, but there’s a good reason for it because it’s such a good one, isn’t it? And now I’ve got that sense of, you know, when you’ve got a little bit and then you’re like, how the hell do I get that into the jigsaw, and the way that you suddenly, when you find that connecting piece as well, then suddenly everything sort of falls into place, which I think is really important because how you connect those little bits that you have created in isolation is so important.

Helen Beedham: Yes, to make sure that the whole story flows. And that was quite important to me, that it felt a good read. It felt like a story that was unfolding. Not just, you know, an assessment of a current situation and some recommendations. I want it to be a really intriguing read.

Alison Jones: I guess the big flaw with that metaphor is that there is no picture, it’s not there already and you just have to put it back together again. So you’re sort of dynamically creating this jigsaw from the inside out.

Helen Beedham: That was particularly true for me because I didn’t have this material existing already in any other way. It was completely new thinking, new intellectual capital and that felt really hard. That was probably the hardest thinking I’ve ever done in my life or the most intense thinking I’ve ever done in my life. But that’s what made it so satisfying as well when I got to the end.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you, that’s really, really great tip and a great image.

I always ask guests, as you know, to recommend a business book as well, I can see you reaching down. What business book are you going to recommend us, Helen?

Helen Beedham: So I am going to recommend a book called We Are Bellingcat: An intelligence agency for the people and it’s by Elliot Higgins. And if you’re watching this on YouTube, I’m just going to show you.

Alison Jones: Ooh, what a great cover.

Helen Beedham: Striking black and white cover. So black background and a white upside down question mark.

And it’s a little bit atypical. I was thinking which one to choose for today. So if you haven’t heard of Bellingcat, it’s an open source intelligence agency that was responsible for figuring out who was guilty of downing Malaysia Flight 17 over Ukraine. They figured out who the Salisbury Novichok poisoners were. And they’ve also unearthed a lot of evidence around some of the biggest war crimes. But what’s really interesting about this book is that he talks about how he grew the agency out of just a passion for understanding data and collecting publicly available data and piecing it together.

So he talks quite a lot about that business model, how he grew the business. He actually used Kickstarter to crowdfund some income to grow the business alongside his other day job. And he talks a lot about the collaborations that he has with all sorts of other people in different roles and how that has enabled him to grow the business.

So it’s an absolutely gripping read, but there’s lots of wisdom in there. And examples that I found helpful thinking about because I’m starting to grow my fledgling business. And it’s had lots of pieces of advice in there for me to think about too.

Alison Jones: What a brilliant recommendation and what a gorgeous cover as well, actually.

Helen Beedham: I must be drawn to black and white covers, right? My own white with black and a bit of red.

Alison Jones: White and black and read all over, let’s hope, yes. Wonderful.

So Helen if people want to find out more about you, more about The Future of Time and more about this business – I’m quite cross, we didn’t actually have time to go more into sort of what you’re doing with the book in the business, but maybe you could give us a quick flavor of that and then give us the links.

Helen Beedham: Sure. So how it’s working for my business. So I write, speak and advise on organizational issues. So I already have some talks available for companies. I’ll be putting up some tickets to talks on my website too, just public talks that you can book into. But it’s also influencing my offer to individuals and corporates so my business model. And it’s given me a much sharper hook to hang my brand and my business around. So that’s really benefiting now. So I’ll be introducing workshops for individuals and businesses and some one-to-one coaching around being more time aware and becoming a time intelligent leader. And for managers to run time savvy, to create time savvy teams, for example.

So that’s how it’s helping the business. And you can find out more about all of that at my website, helenbeedham.com and I’m on most of the social media channels, LinkedIn and Instagram, my handle is Helen J Beedham and Twitter it’s Helen Beedham and I’ve also got a newly launched YouTube channel as well.

And then finally, I am launching my own podcast called The Business of Being Brilliant hopefully next week and in the first series, I’m talking to all my guests about how they flourish in their careers, but also specifically thinking about how we manage time at work.

Alison Jones: Oh, how exciting. Can’t wait to listen to that, absolutely brilliant.

Thank you, Helen. And congratulations again. I know it’s slightly ahead of time, but you know, in a couple of weeks you’re going to be, that book’s going to be out there in the wild. And I honestly can’t think of a single organization that wouldn’t benefit from it.

So congratulations on, you know, just a really, really brilliant first book.

Helen Beedham: Thank you so much. I’m so excited.

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