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Packed schedule? The secret benefits of unscheduled moments at work


Have you found yourself in a new scenario, whether it be from your childhood or time in school, where you learned something you didn’t expect? Maybe you had stretches of free time over the summer where you explored and discovered something new. Or, early in your career, a tenured co-worker went out of their way to help you, mentor you or even coach you without formally being asked.

Those moments in which you did something completely “off plan” and had to test your critical thinking, stretch your capabilities or deploy your imagination – and actually learned something valuable about yourself or life in general from it – are unscheduled adventures. In fact, you probably learned some of your greatest lessons in those moments when things technically “went wrong” or you embarked on an activity that no one instructed you to do.

Some of the most memorable moments of my life are wandering around outside, getting lost in the woods and having to navigate my way back home on my own. And some of my most fond moments in business are very similar. A simple interaction with a trusted friend or colleague who put me back on track without ever creating a Zoom meeting.

From childhood to adulthood, there’s much in life that’s prescriptive. At school, you go to class at set times, learn from a lesson plan, and even eat lunch and go to recess when you’re told. As adults, it’s the same thing at work – much of your day is already mapped out from the start, from everyday tasks to training, seminars and meetings. Certainly, that can become repetitive and even predictable.

Have you considered that your team members can benefit from unscheduled adventures just as much as our younger selves did?

What are “unscheduled adventures”?

In the workplace, unscheduled adventures could be any activity that isn’t planned and, instead, happens organically. Examples:

  • A spontaneous conversation, meeting, team-building activity or outing
  • Moments of levity and humor, especially in stressful times
  • Random brainstorming
  • Discussions or activities that veer off an agenda
  • Unexpected collaboration
  • Asking questions
  • Trying a different approach
  • Spending time researching an issue on a whim

What’s the benefit of unscheduled adventures at work?

Unscheduled adventures result in serendipitous, fortuitous moments that can enable you and team members to be your most real, authentic selves and discover more about each other than you ever would otherwise. As a result, you can:

Unscheduled adventures can even turbocharge employee engagement and inspire your team members to spend time on their own thinking about how to solve business problems – without anyone telling them to do it! That’s called discretionary effort and it’s what every employer dreams of successfully encouraging.

This level of magic and spark simply is not typically achievable in a rigid, overly scheduled environment.

How do you support unscheduled adventures at work?

So, how do you, as a business leader, support a work environment that’s conducive to unscheduled adventures? What would that be like? And what are you doing to facilitate those special “a-ha moments?”

1. Know yourself as a leader

To create the right environment that balances an agenda with spontaneity, you need to know yourself pretty well.  Take a moment, and take an honest approach to see if you tend to:

  • Focus on tasks, processes and goals, or focus on relationships?
  • Be schedule driven or more spontaneous?
  • Bend rules, or does that create anxiety within you?
  • Get impatient and frustrated when things go awry, or stay tolerant and calm?

There is no right or wrong – it’s just different ways of thinking and handling situations. This exercise is meant to help you manage your team with greater awareness of the behaviors you want to develop or dial back.

2. Know others’ personalities and working styles

In addition to knowing your own tendencies, you need to know about the other members of your team. Get acquainted with the different DISC personalities and working styles of your employees, and anticipate how they may react in unscheduled moments or respond to your own behaviors.

Because here’s the thing – unscheduled adventures have much less to do with managing tasks and way more to do with interacting with people.

D personalities: Fast paced and task oriented, these employees want things done now – or, better yet, 10 minutes ago. They have an end goal in mind and want to stick to the agenda so they can get there quicker. You’ll hear them say things like, “Why are we standing around chitchatting? Get to the point and get it done!” This doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for unscheduled adventures.

I personalities: These employees like to infuse humor and levity into challenging situations, and seek to find ways to change the pressure of a room for the benefit of everyone. They are spontaneous and prefer not being bound by rules. They can talk aimlessly for as long as you’ll let them. Often, you’ll hear them say, “Let’s have fun!” Of course, this means they can get off track pretty easily and may have to be reigned back in.

S personalities: These employees are highly responsive to their environment. They are steady and like to go with the flow, supporting a given situation to create harmony. If it gets too tense, they’ll get quiet. You may misinterpret them as having nothing to say, but it’s probably because the atmosphere is too confrontational. However, if it’s open and safe, they’ll share more of themselves and their ideas. So, if you create an environment that encourages unscheduled adventure, you might extract a lot of value and insight from these individuals.

C personalities: Task and process oriented, and extremely precise and deliberate, these employees love structure – to the extent that they’ll try to schedule everything. You may hear them say, “Spontaneity has a time and place, and that’s at 2:32 p.m.” (Just kidding – but not really!) The more they try to schedule everything, the more everything becomes part of the agenda.

Consider how you’ll work with the Ds, Is, Ss and Cs on your team – and how you’ll encourage them to work together among themselves. In short, the challenges in managing unscheduled moments will lie in:

  • Getting the Ds and Cs to understand their natural instincts toward order and precision
  • Keeping the Is on track
  • Supporting and encouraging the Ss

3. Understand what your culture tolerates

Assess, within reasonable boundaries, what your workplace culture will tolerate when your team ventures off schedule – as well as the message that your employees are receiving any time it starts to happen. Does your culture:

  • Allow for moments to veer off agenda?
  • Encourage spontaneous conversations?
  • Welcome ideas from the bottom up?
  • Have moments of laughter and fun?
  • Value continuous learning and development?
  • Provide opportunities for people to ask questions?
  • Discourage or encourage vulnerability?

4. Choose a behavior when the agenda goes out the window

Think about Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation. The poor guy just wants to have the perfect family Christmas, but what happens? Everything that can go wrong does. How does Clark react to the complete upheaval of his fun, old-fashioned family Christmas plans? He goes berserk! By trying to make everything perfect, he pushes everyone away.

Obviously, this is an extreme, and hopefully humorous, example. But use it to consider how a person can best respond to an unscheduled adventure:

  • You don’t need to show anger or frustration (You know, avoid saying burn my dust, eat my rubber!)
  • Don’t think of it as a threat to your control or authority (Don’t go straight to … get me somebody, anybody. And get me somebody while I’m waiting!)
  • Remember, the best leaders don’t create tension, anxiety and fear (Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas!)

Instead, strong leaders allow people to breathe more easily than if they’re afraid or under pressure. They create space for others to explore, stretch and grow. They infuse the atmosphere with calm and assurance.

Tips for creating unscheduled moments that build trust

  • Be willing to interact differently – and collaborate – with your people.
  • Admit what you don’t know and encourage learning together.
  • Highlight the strengths of the people around you.
  • Prioritize trust.
  • Express compassion and empathy.
  • Make room for those unscheduled moments. Avoid phrases like:
    • “We need to get back on track.”
    • “Let’s set a separate meeting time to go over that.”
    • “Put that thought in the parking lot for now.”

Think about how you want people to remember you after the interaction – and align your words and behavior with that image. Ultimately, respond in a way that meets employees’ needs.

Summing it all up

Unscheduled adventures are so important to the workplace because they can teach us how to build trust and camaraderie, foster innovation, boost confidence, encourage learning, inspire self-discovery and even spur greater discretionary effort. It can bring fun and spontaneity into the workplace, helping to break up the monotony and shake people out of repetitious activity and predictable thinking. As a leader, you can cultivate a work environment that, while still operating with a basic structure and agenda, allows space for some deviation in plan. Know yourself, your team and your culture, and respond to unscheduled adventures with calm and tolerance. That way you won’t have to end your tirades with, “Where’s the Tylenol?”

Want to read more about leading your team in an inspiring and supportive way? Download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.