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July 02, 2007
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Einstein Was Right

One of the great quests of science in a modern era has been the effort to prove, disprove or modify Einstein’s theories, including his great general theory of relativity. Among other things, that theory includes an imaginary Journey of the Mind in which a person on a starship moves faster and faster, approaching the speed of light. The closer the astronaut gets to the speed of light the more quickly time would appear to pass on earth as compared to the apparent “normal” passage of time on the starship. 

Einstein developed his theory based upon a “thought experiment.” Instead of doing this work in a sophisticated high-tech laboratory, Einstein, the young clerk in a Swiss patent office, would go for walks and think about “what if” scenarios.

The HR Doctor proposes that Einstein’s thought-problem about the relative passage of time is absolutely correct. The proof is not the type of experiment which would win the Nobel Prize in physics. Rather, the proof is around us everyday — especially on Mondays.

When we come back to work on a Monday morning, the robotically asked question we encounter from co-workers “How was your weekend?” is typically answered with “Fine, but too short!”

When the speed of our life activities changes, as it does on a weekend for most of us Monday-through-Friday employees, time seems to move at a relatively different pace. Time seems to move faster on a weekend or on a day off for many people than it does on a typical workday.

Another proof lies in what happens to all of us as we grow older. The secret to time travel appears to be nothing more than the aging process.

Time seems to crawl by at glacial speeds when we are in the middle of a college final examination or pacing back and forth in the hallway as a young parent with a fussy baby at 2 a.m. However, as we grow older, the pace at which events move past us and our experiences are deposited into our “life savings account” seems to quicken.

Now that the validity of the time travel thought-problem has been solved in only a few lines, let us move on to some practical HR tips to help make time travel easier.

The best and the brightest job applicant and current employees are the ones on whom we need to increase our focus.

In public administration, we spend far too much time focusing on the borderline, marginal performers who seem chronically unable to meet their job commitments to get projects done on time, to show up when they are supposed to, and to serve the public and their fellow employees with respect and efficiency. 

Attracting and retaining positive “can-do” employees will not happen with the traditional models of the 19th century workplace continuing to be applied in the 21st century. Our policies need to be more nimble and flexible, and quickly adaptable to changing circumstances.

As the HR doctor has written previously, the modern workplace’s needs are increasingly inconsistent with a classical civil service model approach that seemed to work well one 125 years ago. The need for flexibility and adaptability seems also increasingly inconsistent with an “entitlement” philosophy in which employees feel that they are wrapped in an outfit made of a combination of Kevlar and Teflon. This feeling is usually accompanied by the attitude that the employee cannot or will not be sanctioned, counseled or helped to develop by supervisors in the organization. 

One answer is to begin a conscious move toward creating benefit models that go beyond merely rewarding seniority without consideration of attitude, performance and contribution. 

Some agencies have an “employee of the month” program in which a particular employee is recognized based upon documented performance excellence and rewarded with a close-in parking place or lunch with the county manager.

Other places have implemented a “rapid reward bonus” program in which documented performance excellence translates right away into a day’s pay or an extra day off. The word “rapid” in this concept means that an employee who does a great job today doesn’t have to wait for nine or 10 months, if not longer, before the performance evaluation is completed to receive recognition.

Flexible scheduling offering some workers the chance to better balance their work life with other personal needs — such as time with children or grandchildren, returning to school or pursuing hobbies, or offering some work-at-home options — represents very tangible and compelling demonstrations of appreciation and recognition.

Managers and supervisors simply pausing to say “thank you” are further and extremely cost-effective examples of how to make the workplace link between performance and reward more effective.

As another example, given our nation’s failure to implement any compelling vision for health insurance, a highly valuable benefit would be post-employment insurance, especially for senior retirees. What a wonderful opportunity to link longer-term performance excellence with a very powerful benefit of some continued payment for post-employment health insurance. The same is true of the increasingly important benefit of long term care insurance.

On the “front end” of a person’s career path, creating apprenticeship and internship programs can jump-start a person’s public service career. Rewards such as an unpaid volunteer being selected to begin a paid internship, perhaps as an adjunct to a person’s college or graduate schoolwork, represents a very powerful incentive.

Just as Professor Einstein articulated a connection between speed and time, so the modern public administrator will increasingly dabble in the physics of workplace relativity.

The key variable in workplace physics, however, is that supervisors and managers cannot make this link unless they are confident, trained and supported.

Have a supervisory and management academy in your own organization. Don’t shortchange employee development funding. Make tuition reimbursement a recognized benefit, especially for managers and professionals. Provide policies and help through a wonderful employee assistance program and an “HR-ER” where managers can get instant and valuable HR advice 24/7 (see a prior HR Doctor Article, “The HR-ER”). Do all of these things to ensure that supervisors are “on-station,” paying attention and aware of their critical responsibilities.

No matter how wonderful various benefit programs may be, managers and supervisors who are poorly trained and equipped to deal with HR issues in a confident manner will get in the way and complicate workplace transformation. An organization must take the steps to fill the void left by a lack of training and the confidence to represent the organization well.

With confident managers, the migration from one-size-fits-all reward for remaining awake, to a stronger link between excellence and reward will take shape in your organization.

One final note on a fringe benefit of the future, since time seems to move quicker on the weekend, clearly, the current concept of a five-day work week needs to give way to something more modern and more effective.

The HR Doctor suggests a migration from working five days and having two days off to the opposite model — a two-day work week with five days available for civic engagement through volunteerism, personal growth through learning and helping others to learn — especially our children. 

Mr. Einstein was right in physics and also in public administration.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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