Wharton’s Michael Parke talks about time management hacks and setting boundaries for yourself in the post-pandemic era, where the traditional workday is being redefined. This episode is part of a series on getting a “Fresh Start” this new year.


How Has Time Management Changed?

Dan Loney: The dynamics of time management are rooted in our history as a country, as a culture. How do you think it has developed with the pandemic and all that we’ve experienced over the last few years?

Michael Parke: Instead of time management, I often like to broaden it up to self-management. We had a lot of structure in terms of going to work. You have your commute. You get to work. You have an office. You have a routine. Then the pandemic changed that for so many people, where you have to find a new structure at home, a different office. You have different distractions. You have some less distraction because you don’t have colleagues, but you may have kids. You might have a lot of other devices at your house that you may not have had access to at work. It was re-learning how to find routines and structure and manage your time at a home office, especially if you weren’t used to that, especially if you didn’t work at home before the pandemic.

I think it really radically shifted how people figured out how to be disciplined, how to do their work, and how to allocate their time in a different space, in a different way, once we shifted a lot to remote work.

Loney: We still have remote work as a component, but you have more companies that are starting to call workers back into the office full time. How do you think that dynamic is going to play out? Is it going to be company by company, or are we going to see more of a return to what we remember pre-pandemic?

Parke: I think those are the key questions out there, and I can’t say I have a strong prediction or an answer. I think what you see are different companies trying different things. One of the professors at Stanford who has studied a lot of the remote work, Nick Bloom, his advice in the past year or so has been to companies is to kind of experiment, right? Start off with the hybrid, maybe three in the office, two at home, and see how it goes. Measure it. Study it, because we are trying to figure it out in terms of companies, organizations, industries, and what may work and what may not.

Other companies and leaders have taken much firmer stands, like, “We’re going to be in the office,” or not. But you’ve even seen a little bit of resistance or pushback on that. I think right now we’re trying to figure it out, and I don’t have a strong prediction of what’s going to win out. If I had to take a guess, I think overall what we’re going to see is much more flexibility, meaning that we’re going to give workers more flexibility of where they work and how they work than they have in the past. Overall, that is a good thing for workers and their productivity and their engagement, as well as for companies. But we’ll see what the data shakes up with that.

Loney: It’s very interesting that the voice of the employee seemingly has more strength behind it now than maybe we’ve ever seen before.

Parke: I would definitely say it seems that way, anecdotally at least, where the stories you hear and the leaders I’ve talked to say, “We can’t get workers back to work.” Well, what do you mean? How did they have a choice in the first place? Can’t you just make them?

I think that’s in the spirit of this galvanization of, “We’re all trying to figure out how to cope, how to battle this pandemic together.” We know people are struggling. We know it’s very difficult. It’s uncertain. You had this sense of purpose in us banding together and helping each other out. When you’re forced to totally shift gears, it’s an opportunity for companies and employees and leaders to reflect, “Well, what makes sense? Does it make sense for me to spend hours commuting when I could spend that time productively on my computer, now that we’ve figured out how to work from a remote standpoint?”

I think that it’s both business logic, but also human care and well-being, which has also been at center the past few years, as well. Those forces merging together, I think, has led to this open conversation of, “Let’s try to craft something that works for you and for us as a company.” Whereas before, I don’t think it was malicious or intentional, it was just what we did. We just went to work, right?

Loney: Right. I think it also really depends on the job that you have and the sector that you work in. Obviously, somebody who is a firefighter, police officer can’t do those jobs remotely.

Parke: Yes, absolutely. There are fears both ways. There are fears of if you don’t let people work remote, will that just drive dissatisfaction? Will they then try to go to jobs that have more flexibility? But then you have the other side, the fear of what happens if we don’t bring people together. I know leaders in particular are worried about maintaining that culture, maintaining those relationships, building those bonds where work is essential and people are focused.

Right now, at least with the current technology, we don’t have a good substitute for getting people together in person. That still does seem to be the strongest driver of those bonds, that cohesion, and those little things that do kind of make the culture of the place.

Self-management and Setting Boundaries

Loney: The term you used before, “self-management,” I think is very interesting because when you’re working from home, now the workday is broken up. That allows you to obviously still do your job, but it allows you to take care of your kids or run an errand. That feels very different from what we’ve had in and around the workplace. But as you alluded to, companies are accepting of this now.

Parke: Yes, absolutely. I think when you have the freedom and flexibility, the key glue here is that trust, where employers trust their employees to get their work done, to not be slacking off, to contribute to the company. And then it’s like, “OK, if our goals are aligned, our priorities are aligned, then we trust you to structure your days the way that works best for you. If you need to work early before your kids get up, then take a couple of hours to get them to school, but then you’re going to make up that time and deliver the work — that works for us.”

Now there are coordination costs, because if you do need to integrate with people, schedules and diaries can be more challenging to align. But if it’s this individual level relationship with the individual employee in the organization, yes. That trust is that glue. We trust you to self-manage. We’re going to evaluate you on: Are you delivering the work at a high level? And that’s what matters to us.

Loney: Let me play devil’s advocate, because you’ve also taken the workday and lengthened it out in many cases to a 14-hour window. There are people who are concerned that we were so connected to our work beforehand, it feels like we’ve even increased that more. What do you say to that?

Parke: I think that is definitely happening. Scholars have looked at this in terms of job-creep. You get increasing demand, but there’s also time-creep, where the work doesn’t turn off. And I don’t have a commute to transition from work to home. I’m just at home, so now I can check my phone during dinner.

I think there are two mechanisms to regulate that, and that’s why self-management is so important. One is ourselves. Are we conscious of what we’re doing in our actions to make sure we have the structure of what are our work hours and nonwork hours? Are we holding ourselves accountable to those? It’s on ourselves to set up those mechanisms, to be disciplined, to not allow the time to creep to work.

The other is culturally. You see organizations do this as well, where some at the extreme end are mandating, “You cannot email at these times.” That’s the strong end. Others use social norms, where the norm is, “Don’t email people after these hours,” or “Don’t expect a response.” We expect a response during certain hours, but after that, there’s no expectation of response. That’s culturally built in. Those two mechanisms help deal with this concern or the actuality of, “Wow, you’re working a lot longer,” and that can have costs.

Time Management Hacks for the Evolving Worker

Loney: It’s going to be interesting to see this play out as we move forward. The baby boomer generation has this component mixed in. But the younger generations are going to understand this to be the norm. I think that’s going to be the unique dynamic to watch out for, how they react to this moving forward. If any of those dynamics change — I don’t know if I want to use the word “revolt” — but they battle back against what they perceive to be not the norm anymore.

Parke: I think it’s a super interesting question. At least when I teach my undergraduate students, I hear a lot of them say they’re excited about their internships that are in-person. And we did see some data that the younger people who are maybe single, new professionals in these offices — they’re the ones who wanted in-person work more often than people who might have established families and so forth, because you have different priorities.

What are they interested in and having the opportunity or flexibility to pursue what they want to pursue in terms of work arrangement, I think that’s important to everyone. And I could definitely see younger people maybe demanding, but also trying to find a job that offers that ability to seek the type of work arrangement that they want, yes. I think work arrangement is probably a criterion that has moved up there for younger people than it was in the past, where everything was just assumed to be in-person or remote.

Loney: I’m going to ask you somewhat of a theoretical question here next because we have become so connected to all of the technology that we have in our lives. I’ve often wondered whether or not this change around remote work might have happened even without the pandemic because of the connectivity?

Parke: Fascinating. Maybe. I think that there would have had to be some impetus for changing or moving that way. And when everyone was forced to, you don’t have a choice.

We always have to acknowledge that certain industries didn’t have that luxury, didn’t have the choice, were still risking their lives, were still on the ground floor. We have to acknowledge that. But for those organizations that had that choice, those industries that had the choice, they were forced to, it made it simpler for leaders to just accept that choice and figure it out.

All their fears of, will this work? They didn’t have to think about it. They didn’t have to worry about it. Now, that’s what I think you see with this uncertainty of like, “Do we bring people back to work or not?” Because all of the fears are in play, and they have to make those decisions now. Maybe if there was impetus of like, “We could save so much money without renting Manhattan real estate prices or commercial rates,” or things that maybe moved us to try it. But I think where you probably would have seen it eventually is startup companies, disruptive companies, where they’re trying this and it’s working.

Older companies, more established companies, we’re learning from them in implementing those policies. That’s probably where you could have seen this change occur over time now.

Loney: You bring up something very interesting about the real estate component. There are still repercussions or downstream impacts that we’re going to be seeing over the next 10 or 20 years, aren’t we?

Parke: Absolutely. There are opportunities and challenges with that, depending on industries, depending on business models. There’s going to be new innovation, there’s going to be new creativity. When you bring in artificial intelligence and all the tools we’re seeing there, will we even manage our own time, or are we going to outsource that to computers and AI that can just do that more efficiently? I don’t think we’re quite there yet in terms of the ability of these tools, but we’re going to get there.

So yes, I think there are a lot of fascinating questions of how is this all going to play out. What has been true for people for a long time is we’re always interested in ways to improve ourselves and our productivity. Time management and self-management often add that, so a lot of the tools we have, have been something as simple as setting up routines around planning your time, planning your weeks, scheduling your priorities. Going back to an old Stephen Covey quote from Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Schedule your priorities, otherwise your time will fill up, and you won’t be getting done with the meaningful work.

Planning, discipline, having accountability mechanisms so that you don’t fall through to resistance because that can take you away from your priorities. I think those things will always be constant. But then you’re going to have these tools that might be able to assist you in doing those things more efficiently and more effectively, which is also very exciting.