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HR Lessons on the Scientific Secrets of Timing

It is time South African companies reviewed outdated practices that are a hangover from the last Industrial Revolution. 

South Africa’s employment landscape is complex and diverse, which is why I first need to compare you to birds.

Are you a night owl or morning lark? In other words, are you more effective in the morning hours or late in the afternoon or evening? When are you at your most productive?

There is obviously no wrong answer to this question. However, is your organization overlooking the science of when its employees work at their best? For example, does your organisation deploy strategies based on individuals’ personal physiological make-up and when they might perform at their peak as opposed to their low points of the day?

If you answered no, then realise you are not alone – most organisations don’t take into account the scientific secrets of perfect timing. However, it is a missed opportunity.

Consider this: What happens when someone who is an owl meets a highly energised lark for a morning meeting at 8am? And will the organisation get the optimal performance out of both employees?

In the South African context, many employees have to travel long distances, mostly by minibus taxis, to get to work. This can mean they begin their journey to their place of employment by as early as 4am in order to meet the boss’s requirements that everyone is behind their desk by 8am.

Our collective thinking on this was challenged recently when Duke Corporate Education hosted a high impact one day event in Johannesburg: The Davos of Human Capital.

New York Times best-selling author Daniel Pink joined over 500 leading business executives to interrogate the future of work. His keynote address posed questions on how HR leaders should use the latest research on timing to achieve optimal individual and organizational performance.

  1. Time of day effects 20% of the variance in human performance on work tasks. This is a mind-boggling statistic that Daniel shared during his talk. Regardless of our intellect and educational background, all of us are at the mercy of when we perform best during the time of day. Daniel shared several different research studies that basically all share a common theme: individuals reach a peak point, then there is a trough and then this is followed by a period of recovery. It would be extremely rare to find individuals from within the same team who all have the same patterns of when they reach their respective peaks.

The key though is for individuals to be cognizant of their own personal chronotype, or body clock, and then to schedule their day based on this. So for example, during one’s peak period, time should be dedicated to work that is more intense and analytical in nature. Troughs are the time to do the mundane, like responding to emails.

There are a whole host of other HR implications around this. For example, if you and your team are mostly owls perhaps it is better to schedule important meetings later in the day.

  1. Don’t think of breaks as deviation from work, but rather as a part of work. Daniel highlighted research from Israel showing that judges overwhelmingly granted parole to more inmates seeking early release after they had a break, as opposed to before. This is not to say that these were the “right” decisions, or that the judges were suddenly more lenient. What it demonstrated is that the judges were willing to think differently, apply their minds and did not apply the default decision of denying parole to offenders – which would have been easier and courted less controversy. The research shows taking breaks can help us recover from a trough and perform better.

Daniel shared that the most effective breaks are when individuals get out of their desks and move. Social breaks have proven to be more restorative and it also is recommended to get outside.

Following such breaks, there should be noticeable improved performance. As a starting point, leaders should be modellers of stepping away from their desk to break the stereotypes that the best workers need to be head down in front of their computers at all times.

  1. End on a high note. Daniel explained how our lives are episodic: there are beginnings, middle stages and endings. Each period affects our behaviour differently. Case in point is research showing that individuals are twice as likely to run a marathon at age 29 as opposed to ages 28 and 30. Physically, there is little difference between these three ages. Yet there is the inclination to finish out a period of life – our 20s – on a positive note. Another chart showed that a person is three times as likely to run a first marathon at age 49 as opposed to 50. Endings can energize and elevate us, according to Daniel, and therefore HR professionals need to think about leveraging this fact in performance reviews and to better understand what may be motivating employees at different stages of their life.

The Impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution
As I mentioned earlier, South Africa’s employment landscape is complex, diverse and must cope with vast income inequalities in society. We have an unemployment rate of 27%. Very few learners who complete high school will find a job or can afford tertiary education.

At the same time, we are undergoing fundamental change as machine learning, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things revolutionises our workplace.

“The way to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the workplace,” says Daniel Pink, “is to think about what humans do uniquely – what humans can do that machines can’t. Machines are not very great at coming up with questions. So asking questions now is more valuable than giving the right answers. Machines are not that creative. They’re not good at coming up with ideas that the world didn’t know it was missing. Humans do that very well.”

Most HR professionals that I interact with love to analyse data and base decisions on the trends. It certainly makes sense to do this. However, often overlooked is the science of timing.

To better understand this, I highly recommend that you read Daniel’s entire book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution upon us, there is much talk about the jobs and skills needed in the future. We do not know all the answers or what surprises await us. What we can be sure about though is that companies must embrace change and start preparing for a whole new world. There is no time to lose. The clock is ticking.

Sharmla Chetty is Duke CE’s president for Africa and global managing director for Africa and Europe. Learn more about Duke CE at
Sharmla Chetty is Duke CE’s president for Africa and global managing director for Africa and Europe. Learn more about Duke CE at
First published in Duke Corporate Education Leadership  Insights

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