December 5, 2017

White Space versus Empty Space

By CEO Jim Annis


There’s a new battle being waged for your time that will suck the life out of your innovation culture…if you let it. In past articles we have talked about the importance of white space to the six roles of the CEO (Strategist, Ambassador, Inventor, Coach, Investor and Student). Social media and online distractions have taken a chunk out of our white space to a point where we now have what I am calling “empty space.”

Classic White Space Pre-Social Media - In the olden days (like early 2000’s…chuckle) as CEOs we had to diligently identify time on our calendars where nothing was planned so that we could catch up on industry reading, strategize and plan, or do a process review to see where improvements could be made. This was a key driver for innovation and creativity. We didn’t think we had time THEN. Now, the task seems even more daunting. Funny thing about white space - your brain wants to "fill it up." My experience is carving out white space takes a while to get used to and it's well worth it. Enter 2017 – a whole new demanding world.

Empty Space Post Social Media – Between info overwhelm, online content and social media, that giant sucking sound you hear is the vacuum that is pulling your employees away from the goals and objectives. Let me use a stronger term…. a black hole has swallowed them up. They are checked out, paying bills, sending pantry boxes to their homes through Amazon and trolling Twitter. The blurring of personal life and work life is a constant. No longer is it an issue of losing their attention five minutes here or there chatting around the water cooler. Research shows that typical rank and file employees work six out of eight hours. Of that, two hours is not productive. Ouch. Your short-term productivity took a dive. So did your long-term creativity factor.

It’s Innovation Culture for the Win - The purpose of white space is not to escape. It is to plan. That might be natural to you, the CEO; however, think about your rank and file employees. Not everyone is a planner. What does it look like for someone who is not a CEO or in the C-suite? Awareness of the white versus empty space battle is a good way to open up the conversation with your employees and management team. Leadership first needs to define, “Why are we innovating? Do we want to kill the competition? What is our eventual desired result?” Reasoning backwards can help. Show employees why white space matters directly to the daily work and then challenge them, “We want this to improve. Can you think of a process that achieves our goals?” Building allowances for white space in your employees’ schedules is just as imperative as building it into yours.

If you have an “empty space” work culture, we liken that to a Twinkie with empty calories. A culture of white space represents more of a well-balanced meal. By using white space to limit the "noise," we can create balance and spend energy on what’s truly important. Identifying “empty space” during our day and converting that expended energy into the classic purpose white space was intended to be – a time to be present, planning, engaged, aware, purposeful and innovative in our leadership role.

Jim Annis is president/CEO of The Applied Companies, which provide HR solutions for today’s workplace. Celeste Johnson, Applied's COO, contributed to this article.

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