Time, toxic productivity and urgency cultures in non-profits: part 2
This is the second of a two-part blog; you will find it helpful to read part 1 first. In part 1, I explored how cultures of urgency and time-management approaches affect staff from non-profits and the impact of their work. I took an intersectional lens to understand how dominant approaches to time management interact with systemic oppression. Here, I describe how staff in non-profits are responding to urgency culture and argue for a response that takes into account the structural drivers of time scarcity. I draw on findings from an open survey to people working for non-profits in May 2023, as well as my own 18 years’ experience as a feminist who has worked and volunteered for non-profits around the world.
Over several years of working at a frantic pace for non-profit organisations around the world, there have been many times when I have tried to bend the clock to my will. As time became ever-scarce to me — particularly after having children — I tried to eke out as many seconds as I could from the 24-hour-clock. I can’t remember one train commute when I didn’t work on my laptop; I would explore various productivity and time- management tools. I was convinced I could address time scarcity just by optimising myself. Then, I took this ethos to others. I apologise to my former team for trying to enrol them on this exhausting pursuit — I remember we spent one morning discussing time management techniques like eating the frog. Today I think of all the other things we could have been exploring instead. I approached the systemic issue of why some of us were so time poor in a very individualised way.
I am not alone — survey respondents shared the ways in which their employers support staff to maximise their productivity by trying to ‘beat the clock’. These strategies included email management training or trialling pomodoro techniques. Meanwhile, lots of respondents spoke about how their non-profit liked them to track their time use using online tools because, in the words of one respondent, ‘this can help us to make better decisions about our time use in the future’. Time trackers in particular cause me deep discomfort — not just because of concerns about surveillance, but I remember the work of Jenny Odell, in which she makes the link between plantation slavery and time-use ledgers.
Others gave examples of how their organisations have started to set guidelines to ensure shorter and more ‘effective’ meetings. While some people appreciated this, others spoke about meeting agendas allowing little time for human connection to take place. Don’t get me wrong, I have sat through my fair share of mind-numbing, endless meetings. But I still believe that meetings — if facilitated well — can be a space for people to connect, check-in, build mutual understanding and basically treat each other as something other than cogs in a bigger wheel.
Some non-profits are trying to protect staff time by introducing meeting-free periods during the working week. Again, people’s responses to these seem to be mixed:
‘The meeting-free days are ineffective — unsurprisingly — as we still have meetings but now feel guilty about it, or the other days become more meeting intensive anyway.’
Others make the point that meeting-free days are a blunt tool for addressing what is essentially a heavy workload issue:
‘The staff is very appreciative of the [measures like meeting-free periods] but that doesn’t reduce the workload. Blocking out afternoons hasn’t personally worked for me as a manager as weeks are filled with meetings.’
Others spoke about trying to convince their organisations of the need for more effective prioritisation. However, the impact of those efforts has been mixed — with many respondents saying they had seen a short-term improvement, with subsequent defaults to urgency and toxic productivity. Others make the point that prioritisation happens in hierarchical spaces, which can limit its effectiveness.
‘The decision-making [in relation to prioritisation] was more hierarchical so it was subject to what one person thought was important or not important, which was not necessarily reflective of the team’s perceptions or values’
‘We have tried to prioritise to help slow things down, but it is often inconsistent, and we soon go back to full acceleration mode. In any case, it wasn’t effective as the number of tasks in the first place was still way too high’
‘We do prioritise — but then it has all been undermined by staffing cuts’
Survey respondents also gave examples of organisations extending deadlines or offering more flexibility (for more on why flexibility isn’t the panacea to all that ails us, see part 1 of this blog).
Many of these strategies seem to embody an approach to time that seeks to reinforce systems of control. Few of the tactics we are using to tackle time scarcity or to slow down the pace of our work respond to some of the systemic drivers — namely, the neoliberalisation of the non-profit sector, new managerialism in our organisations, donor funding regulations, cuts to aid budgets and social sector funding and the ways in which inequalities intersect in ways that give certain groups more access to time than others. If we only focus on individualised strategies and ad-hoc organisational measures to tackle these issues, we may as well be trying to dismantle the Titanic with a toothpick.
I urge us to reimagine our relationship to time; to be unapologetically bold and unsettling in our visions. As bell hooks reminds us: ‘What we cannot imagine, cannot come into being’.
The Right to Time
In part 1 of this blog, we explored how a lack of space to pause and reflect was undermining the quality of the work of non-profits. (74% of survey respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that their employer gives them time to pause and reflect on a regular basis). This seems to have become a ‘normal’ state of affairs — something no-one exactly likes, but we feel we have to accept, or something we are too tired to resist. Harmful systems of power rely on our exhaustion to reproduce themselves.
The oldest rallying cry of labour movements has been the fight for shorter working hours. What we now need is collective struggle for the Right to Time. We need to advocate for more realistic workloads and access to time as an inherent right — and not as an act of ‘benevolence’ bestowed by an ‘enlightened’ NGO. After all, ‘benevolent’ gestures such as ad-hoc deadline extensions can easily be withdrawn.
Ensuring the Right to Time might also mean adopting leadership approaches (see below) that involve naming harmful power dynamics and speaking truth to those upstream actors who are encouraging a relentless drive for ‘results’. I was recently inspired when a small, feminist organisation I worked for pushed back against extra — in our minds, utterly pointless — work imposed on us by a large bilateral donor. What happened? Absolutely nothing. We refused to do any extra work; and the donor accepted our decision because to do anything otherwise wasn’t worth their time or effort. Of course, acting in this way may bring sanctions and risk the chance of future funding — and indeed, some survey respondents told deflating stories of how donors negatively reacted when they tried to negotiate for greater flexibility. But what if we demanded the Right to Time from donors collectively, with a louder voice, and with the more powerful NGOs absorbing the bulk of the risk?
As the sector ‘professionalised’ and large parts of the non-profit sector became more depoliticised, many non-profits felt they needed to act in ways that supported donor mandates and complied with highly demanding donor funding practices. This needs to stop. Otherwise, we are complicit in reproducing what many of us once said we abhorred. I am heartened by the — often feminist — organisations I see leading the charge in resisting unfair donor conditionalities.
What might a ‘Right to Time’ manifesto look like for the non-profit sector? Send me your ideas! For me, this is not about creating an ‘elite cadre’ of non-profit workers who have greater access to time than their constituents, those they serve and their partner organisations. It’s about democratising access to time for all, especially those who experience the sharpest pain caused by time scarcity.
Feminist leadership approaches
We also need more feminist leaders to collectively champion a Right to Time. Feminist leadership offers a radically different leadership style to that of neoliberal ‘new managerialism’ I spoke about in part 1 of this article. It centres the importance of self and collective care. It surfaces harmful power dynamics and names how systemic power intersects to affect different groups of people. It channels courage to hold feet to the fire. It enforces boundaries and does its best to say ‘no’ or ‘no more’. Compare this to the ways in which some survey respondents described dominant management styles in their non-profits:
‘There is a tendency… for management to encourage burnout by not taking breaks… thereby setting unhealthy expectations and pressure on newer staff members’
It is a leadership approach that aims to avoid toxic productivity and constant states of high urgency. There is evidence that leaders who operate at a level of high urgency risk a tendency towards autocratic behaviour. Research by Briker, Waller and Cole in 2020 found that managers who worked at an ‘urgent’ pace were more likely to favour fast solutions, ignore divergent ideas and discount alternative views. They may also be more likely centralise decision making and pressure their subordinates through their dominant behaviour.
Part of ensuring the Right to Time involves rethinking growth and the idea of ‘scale’. I am inspired by feminists working to reconceptualise the idea of ‘scale’, and the way in which they are conceiving of scale outside of neoliberal logics. For example, the Community for Understanding Scaling Processes has been exploring the ways in which traditional approaches to growth and scale can perpetuate harmful power dynamics and encourages us to think about growth in a feminist way. Feminist conceptions of growth might be more about deepening relationships with partners, increased solidarity between actors and a greater focus on accountability than they are about reaching more people, doing more for less or getting more ‘bang for your buck’.
Non-profits must ask themselves — how much growth is enough? They can reflect on the words of adrienne maree brown, who tells us ‘There is always enough time for the right work’. We can consider: what is ‘enough’ and what is ‘right’?
‘Crip time is flex time not just expanded but exploded; it requires re-imagining our notions of what can and should happen in time, or recognizing how expectations of ‘how long things take’ are based on very particular minds and bodies. Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds.’
Crip time would allow us greater spaciousness in the working day. It tells us time use should be negotiated with disabled people, not for them. It allows for greater autonomy and agency over how time is used and to what ends. It asks institutions to examine the systems of production they create — and who they do and don’t work for. It asks us to consider: whose bodies are pushed beyond their limits in our dominant ways of working? It is a way of using time that helps to build community and mutual understanding. Listen to what disabled writer Srinidhi Raghavan describes below:
‘Recently, I was on a work call when everyone (a group of disabled women) was only communicating through text. Text read out by screen readers. Time slowed down. We all typed one after the other. Waiting for the other to complete their thought. Waiting for others to read. Waiting for others to type. The entire process had patience embedded in it, but also a challenge to “normative” ideas of discussion time and pace. No one impatiently typed over others or wanted to “move things along”.’
They are depicting a process of deep care and spaciousness. It seemed like time very well spent. Crip time would democratise time for all of us.
The politics of care
We won’t solve the issue of the gendered nature of time poverty in our organisations simply by instituting flexible working hours. As I mentioned in part 1 of this blog, non-profits are often self-congratulatory about flexible working policies to the extent that they feel their job is done. Yes, flexible working is important, but it’s not enough. A feminist version of flexibility would be one based first and foremost on the responsibilities of care that disproportionately fall on women’s shoulders. It would understand the continuum of care work women carry out — paid, underpaid as well as unpaid. It would challenge toxic productivity practices that sell us the lie that ‘working when and where you want, as long as you get the work done’ is some kind of feminist ‘gift’. It would acknowledge that the only real solution to this problem is structural — women in many countries deal with unaffordable, dysfunctional care systems. It would ask non-profits to consider the roles they can play in advocating for greater state investments in care; to push for communal care systems and greater mechanisms of support for families. It would ask the big non-profits with more voice and clout to show solidarity with organisations further down the food chain who are making the case for greater attention to care work. It will take all of us, using whatever means we have, to chip away at the structures holding so many of us down.
I have spoken a lot about lack of time as a structural issue. I understand how overwhelming this might sound and how long-term strategies might not feel enough to help us endure the day-to-day. When we need to survive a relentlessly exhausting workplace because we do not have the privilege of just walking away, how might small acts of resistance be revolutionary?
I am reminded of a job I once had in the publishing industry. I worked with a freelancer who clearly hated the job as much as I did. The difference was she was willing to be subversive. I noticed that she would take the longest time to move around the office — e.g., if she went to the printer, she’d have conversations with all the people sitting next to it on her way back and perhaps make (another) cup of tea in the kitchen along the way. She was quite subtle about this —whiling away the clock in a way that our boss didn’t notice. This, I now realise, was a form of time theft.
This idea of time theft has a long history — Michel de Certeau wrote about the practice of ‘la perruque’ to describe the tactics of subversion used by some working class people in France in the 1960s. ‘La perruque’ might mean a secretary writing a love letter on company time; or a carpenter borrowing the factory lathe to make a chair for their own kitchen. It is a small act of resistance and a reclamation of one’s time in a capitalist system.
I am also convinced that ‘la perruque’ can be used in ways that contribute to dismantling oppressive systems. In their brilliant book ‘Anti- Racist Scholar Activism’, Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Laura Connelly speak about how academics can use time — and the university’s resources — in a subversive manner to support radical, anti-racist endeavours outside of the academy. They give examples of academics who use their time at work to photocopy leaflets for anti-racism activist groups and who prioritise their research time based not upon what the academy deems to be ‘prestigious’, but instead upon what communities of resistance tell them would be most helpful to activist work on the ground. Acts like this can contribute to positive change — after all, all great transformations have in some way relied upon low-key, quotidian scheming by committed individuals.
I am hopeful that we can collectively approach time in a different way. It will take courage, no small amount of audacity and a willingness to conceive different ways of being and working outside of our existing mental models. Just imagine the rewards…
Leila Billing is co-founder of We Are Feminist Leaders. You can follow her on Twitter: @leilabilling