Time is of the Essence

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“Time is of the essence” – a well-known phrase which generally implores us to hurry up and do…something.

It is also a phrase regularly used in contract law, where the contract requirement (or an element of it) must be completed by a stipulated time or date. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

Anecdotally, the first use of the phrase in a contract was in the United States in the 1860s. President Abraham Lincoln signed The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, providing the foundation for building the transcontinental railway. The railroad builders – the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad – would be given 6,400 acres of land and $48,000 in government bonds for every mile of track completed. However, the contract stipulated that all assets (land and bonds) would be forfeited if the project wasn’t completed within 12 years (it was, three years early).

Essentially, the contract became a race. The company that worked faster and laid more miles of track received more grants and bonds. Time truly was of the essence for each company’s success.

Time is also of the essence in our profession. Every submission document includes a reminder that bids received after the stated return date and time will not be considered. Even in the world’s ‘new normal’, we remain bound to the abstract concept of time to earn our living. Calendars and clocks still dictate our days. Deadlines are still set and met. Meetings are still arranged and attended. The time ‘flux’ over the past year hasn’t changed anything about the bidding process.

“The requirement (read ‘stress’) of delivering a job on time, winning work and moving on to the next has remained. It’s ‘business as usual’. Only it’s not.

A case in point: One of my clients works on a national framework for a blue-chip company, with new work packages issued annually. Pre-Covid, the business development, operations and bid teams gathered together regularly, from kick-off through to submission, distributing work and reviewing information live and in person. Efficiently, productively, collaboratively.

This year, the process was carried out via telephone and Teams. Yes, we saved time by not commuting from all parts of the country to a central location. We saved money working from home rather than staying in hotels overnight during the tender period. But what did we lose?

Quick resolutions to questions (and disagreements). Communal tea breaks (where someone else makes the tea!). Camaraderie in the bidding trenches. We were still efficient, productive and collaborative but…it just took so much more time.

In our profession, we tend to measure time in phases (capture, bid and pursuit, proposal) or tasks (PQQs, tenders, presentations). Milestones planned. Targets met. In the past year, however, we’ve been forced to consider time differently and see it for what it is – the most important resource in any kind of operation. It is the only thing that you can’t create more of or replace with something else.

“Time at large” is the lesser known, opposite contract clause to “time is of the essence”. It usually means only that works must be completed within a ‘reasonable’ time. Our current, non-traditional, flexible working methods have provided opportunities to find a balance between the two. Is there a deadline? Yes. Do you have to meet the deadline working 9 to 5? No.

In late February, the Prime Minister told a rail industry conference he was confident workers would return to traditional work patterns “in a few short months” when lockdown restrictions were eased. Will we ever return to the way we used to work? Do we want to? Should we?

According to Stephen Covey (author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), “The essence of time management is to set priorities and then to organise and execute around them. Setting priorities requires us to think carefully and clearly about values, about ultimate concerns. These then have to be translated into long- and short- term goals and plans, [and] translated once more into schedules or time slots. Then, unless something more important — not something more urgent — comes along, we must discipline ourselves to do as we planned.”

We have had to learn new ways to work together – and apart – while still being productive and efficient. As we move forward into a post-lockdown world, we will frame the events of the last 15 months through our own lenses. What will we see?

Perhaps in our ongoing perception of time and its use, it will be enough if we have learned there is a difference between what is urgent and what is important.

This article was written by Lisa Readman.

Lisa is an Expert Content Evaluator. She is a highly skilled proofreader, copy editor and evaluator of bidding, sales and marketing documents. Lisa established her own business, Readman Writes, in 2018 to combine her unique skillset and passion for words with a sensible, commercial approach to clear and concise written communication. Her services include pre-tender evaluations, document reviews and one-to-one technical writing training.

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