By Melissa J. Anderson

As the global economy continues to spin through a “new normal” of cash flow uncertainty and reduced workforce, a new McKinsey report suggests that companies must start finding ways to alleviate the pressure on executives due to a new kind of resource scarcity: time.

Researchers Frankki Bevins and Aaron De Smet write in the McKinsey Quarterly, “The impact of always-on communications, the growing complexity of global organizations, and the pressures imposed by profound economic uncertainty have all added to a feeling among executives that there are simply not enough hours in the day to get things done.”

Of course time scarcity has always been a challenge, but McKinsey believes today’s situation is new. In the same way that new technology enables people to stay in touch with work anytime and anyplace, they are obligated to. And because hiring has not been prioritized through the economic recovery, already overloaded professionals are expected to take on yet more projects, and to work around the clock, wherever they are.

McKinsey believes that time management has for too long been dismissed as a “personal problem,” for executives to handle on their own. Addressing time management from an institutional standpoint, write Bevins and De Smet, would help companies get more done, hang on to precious funds, and help retain high performers.

“Time management isn’t just a personal-productivity issue over which companies have no control; it has increasingly become an organizational issue whose root causes are deeply embedded in corporate structures and cultures” they write.

Time Management

In McKinsey’s late 2011 poll of almost 1,500 executives globally, only nine percent of respondents said they were “very satisfied” with how they spend their time at work.

Less than half said they were “somewhat satisfied” and about a third were “actively dissatisfied.” Even more distressing, believe Bevins and De Smet:

“What’s more, only 52 percent said that the way they spent their time largely matched their organizations’ strategic priorities. Nearly half admitted that they were not concentrating sufficiently on guiding the strategic direction of the business. These last two data points suggest that time challenges are influencing the well-being of companies, not just individuals.”

A problem this widespread has moved beyond the realm of personal and into an institutional challenge. When the vast majority of executives are unable to handle their workloads in an appropriate amount of time, institutions will suffer.

The authors believe that by analyzing the responses of the few executives who are satisfied, companies can find solutions that make sense enterprise-wide.


McKinsey’s research shows that executives in the satisfied group were able to budget their time in a way that was aligned with the strategic objectives of their work. They also seemed to have time for people management built into their schedule. Bevins and De Smet write:

“The satisfied executives identified four key activities that take up (in roughly equal proportions) two-thirds of their time: making key business or operational decisions, managing and motivating people, setting direction and strategy, and managing external stakeholders. None of these, interestingly, is the sort of transactional and administrative activity their dissatisfied counterparts cited as a major time sink.”

Addressing the time-scarcity issue means companies must budget both time and money for administrative workers or support staff, enabling executives to free time for the strategic work they are paid for. McKinsey suggests five steps to solving the time-scarcity dilemma at an institutional level.

1. Create a “time leadership” budget, and establish the processes for determining it.

2. Remember that additional time will be required for change management projects.

3. Make sure all executives (or their assistants) are actively managing time.

4. Create a master calendar where executives’ schedules are managed honestly.

5. Make high-quality administrative staff a priority.

Bevins and De Smet continue, “The starting point is to get clear on organizational priorities—and to approach the challenge of aligning them with the way executives spend their time as a systemic organizational problem, not merely a personal one.”

By ensuring that time is treated as a precious resource, employers will be able to retain more energetic, alert, and engaged executives. Aligning time resources with strategic objectives enables companies to better assess their ability to meet their goals.