Bunker days

A while ago, in our daily stand-up, one of our team said she was going to have a 'bunker day'. You may know that, 'A bunker is a defensive military fortification designed to protect people or valued materials from falling bombs or other attacks. … Bunkers can also be used as protection from tornadoes.

First, off we misheard and thought she said she was going to have a bonkers day. Since most days feel pretty bonkers we weren't sure why she'd called it out but when she told us she'd said 'bunker', we all got her image immediately.

It meant she was going to hole herself up not allowing any interruptions or distractions. She was going to shield herself from organizational tornadoes, attack by heaven knows what email demands, phone calls, text messages, What's App, Lync, interruptions, and so on. She was going to protect her day, keeping it totally clear for reflective time, regrouping, thinking things through. There's a French phrase for it 'reculer pour mieux sauter' (to draw back in order to make a better jump).

We've adopted the term – and the action – into our team vocabulary now, and it's quite a favourite. We all now have 'bunker days' and, I think, benefit greatly from them. We don't advertise the fact beyond our team. (Although we may get brave enough at some stage to put up an out of office notifier saying 'your email will not be answered as I am taking a bunker day'.)

Jennifer Porter's article 'Make time for self-reflection' in Harvard Business Review reinforces the notion that reflective time is important, offering as evidence, some research done in call centres finding that 'employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting about lessons learned performed 23% better after 10 days than those who did not reflect'. (If your organisation has call centres, it's worth reading the full research paper).

Porter observes that, 'The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions. For leaders, this "meaning making" is crucial to their ongoing growth and development.'

Others come to similar conclusions. Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change, remarks in his paper 'I have learned from experience that many people would be better off if they did less and reflected more. Perhaps the biggest problem we have today is not doing too little but trying to do too much. … In our present networked society, introspection and reflection have become lost arts. Instead, we are at risk of becoming victims of informational overload. The balance between activity and inactivity has become seriously out of sync' . Others have noted that this can have severe negative consequences including 'significant personal and mental health problems'. Additionally 'productivity can actually decline' (see an article on this latter aspect).

Some organisations do recognize the value of contemplative time. Kets de Vries tells us that 'Companies such as 3M, Pixar, Google, Twitter and Facebook have made disconnected time, or contemplative practices, key aspects of their way of working. The objective is to increase their employees' self -awareness, self-management and creativity. They want them to work smarter'.

My experience, too, is that reflective time is a great investment. What I've seen come out of our team member's bunker days are things like well thought through and argued reports, creative ideas (that we've acted on), energy re-loads, application of new ways of doing things, increased curiosity, and higher levels of resilience to continue tackling obstacles but from new/different angles.

We haven't formalised bunker days – as in 'you can have 5 bunker days per year'. They are an ad-hoc 'when you need one, take one'. Neither have we coined the phrase 'without bunkers we'd go bonkers' but I think that's the case.

How are you designing 'bunker' time or days into your organisation? Let me know.