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There’s never a good time like the present

It’s late again, dinner makes you think better.  You suddenly remember what you forgot to announce about the new strategy and there’s steps you want everyone to do before that project meeting tomorrow.  So, as usual, you race off and write another email to the senior leadership team members while it’s top-of mind.

No time like the present, right? Nothing could be further from the truth.

As a consultant working across businesses of all sizes, from government to finance, banking and security, I’ve watched closely, since the dawn of the Blackberry and early email systems, just how after-hours communications accelerate aspects of corporate culture — and in turn the damage that is invariably done to those cultures.  Let me be blunt, today’s corporate email addition – particularly from executive levels is chipping away at your team’s creativity, ability to innovate and true productivity.  It’s leading to staff dissatisfaction, attrition and the destruction of corporate cultures globally.

My challenge to executive level management: If this sort of email-centric behaviour is a regular thing for you, you’re missing the opportunity to participate in family life, putting some healthy distance in from work — distance that’s critical to the fresh perspective you need as the leader. And, when the boss is focussed as part of the team effectively and demonstrating an understanding of work-life-balance, the team feels engaged, empowered and like they should be working.

My suggestion is to think about the message you’d like to send, then stop and think.

Is a delay going to cause an issue? Do you need the team to reply to you immediately? Or are you just sending the email because it’s top of your mind and you’d like to get it off your chest before you forget? If it’s the former, you’re intentionally chaining your employees to the office 24×7. If it’s the latter, you’re unintentionally chaining your employees to the office 24×7.

Clearly, this isn’t a healthy model for you, your team, or the wider company culture. Being connected in off-hours during busy times is the sign of a high-performer. Never disconnecting is a sign of a workaholic. And there is a big difference.  Sending or replying to unnecessary emails on weekends or at all hours of the night is not the sign of a hero.  It’s a tell-tale sign that a company culture has hit rock bottom when staff engagement is measured by the willingness of staff to engage outside office hours and work weekends.  Staff attrition (and ultimately company collapse) come next.

Regardless of your genuinely positive intent, I’ve found through my experience with dozens of companies that there are two reasons late-night email habits spread from the boss to the team:

  1. Career progression. When the boss emails you or a group late at night, most employees think a late night response is either needed or going to be rewarded if they respond immediately. Most also feel that they’re “getting stuff done” if they just reply. If the team-mates on the email chain mostly share the same belief, it will logically spread through the whole team. Connecting that late night discussion to the meeting the next day is all it takes. Unfortunately, in today’s job market, everyone wants to be that hero.
  2. Being unable to switch off. Unless you own your own business, most people don’t wake up each day with the intention of “working” over breakfast until their heads hit the pillow. But almost everyone these days admits to having less than perfect attention management skills. The fallacy of effective multitasking isn’t an oxymoron that most people understand – because everyone’s trying to do ten things at once.  We’re now so used to constant distractions around us, that regardless of what we should be doing, we find our fingers mindlessly tapping the icons on our smartphones inevitably lead to email, text, social media or Candy Crush. Many of these additictions actually started with that late-night communication feeding the additiction.

Being “always on” hurts the team and the business

When your team is constantly monitoring email after work hours — whether this is due to a fear of missing something from you, or because they have become addicted to their smartphone — they are missing out on an essential break that need to rebuild and be ready for the next issue.

Research has shown that, to deliver our best at work, we require downtime. Google and most large companies now mandate a block of creative down-time.  It produces those valuable new ideas and fresh insights we all need.  The bad news is that, if your team can never disconnect, because they’re chained to their smartphones, or always subconsciously squirming to see the screen and what you’ve emailed, you’re missing out as a business.   Creativity, inspiration, and motivation are invaluable in any business, and they’ll always be part of your competitive advantage.  However, they are also diminishing resources need to be rebuilt after incidents and re-discovered after they are depleted. A quick management retreat just doesn’t magically fix a long-term, culturally entrenched bad habit.  Ironically, when management find themselves entertaining the same issues and lack of creativity, it’s worthwhile taking the time to look at your communication habits.

The C-Level need to step up and prevent the unhealthy habits and assumptions about email and other communication from taking root. They need to be clearer than ever about the expectations around email and other communications, and set up policies to support a healthy culture that recognizes and values focussed single-tasking, work-life-balance and creative downtime.

Vynamic, a healthcare consultancy in America, have successfully trialled a policy they call “Zmail,” where email, aside from priority-one cases, is disallowed during the evenings on weekdays, and all day on weekends. The policy doesn’t prevent work during these times, nor does it prohibit communication. If an after-hours message is absolutely necessary, the team is asked to assess whether it’s important enough to require a call. If employees choose to work during off-hours, the policy discourages them from putting their habits onto others by reducing emails during this time.  Staff are asked to simply save the messages as drafts to be manually sent later, or they schedule their email client to send the messages during work hours. This policy creates alignment between the company’s stated belief that downtime is important, and the behaviours of the staff that contribute to rebuilding a positive business culture.

Also, executive teams generally need to take a long, hard look at the attitudes of the business towards an always-on work environment. The usually unconscious belief that more work equals more success is a myth that is often difficult to overcome and endemic within inexperienced executive teams. The truth is that this concept is neither beneficial nor sustainable. More and more studies are showing that long work hours actually decrease both productivity and engagement. My own experience has seen that, all-too-often, leaders talk about this theoretical idea of downtime, but they also feel chained to progressing company objectives progress — which seems like it requires constant whipping of the team.

Many management teams that believe in the hours-equals-productivity myth fall into the trap of creating a frantic environment that includes constant email noise at all hours of the day or night. Not only does this ‘frantic engagement’ philosophy not work or make your staff more productive, it rapidly leads to burnout and staff attrition. At best, staff make work their lives, before they realise there’s more to life and leave.  At worst, it creates busy-work, with distracted staff that end up being surprisingly focussed on Seek.com. Smart managers base staff hiring decisions on their knowledge, experience, and unique talents, not how many tasks they can appear do at once, or how many emails they can answer in a day – or their willingness to engage in weekend work.

So, if you’re ready to fix that toxic culture, it’s time to demonstrate and encourage an environment where employees can actually apply their intelligence and creativity in a meaningful way.

  • Eradicate the phrase “time management” from management-speak and focus on the idea of “attention management,” and make training on this crucial skill part of your management and staff development plans.  Start with the executive team.
  • Unless the business is going to stop, don’t send after-hours communication.
  • Be a leader by demonstrating the benefits of being there with the team. Put away your device when speaking with the team.
  • Implement a “no smartphone” policy in meetings to promote single-tasking and full engagement.
  • Work to discourage an always-on culture of constant interruptions and distraction that kills engagement and creativity by bringing back the idea of focus, balancing an open floor plan with plenty of accessible quiet spaces.
  • Create part-time remote work options for high concentration roles, tasks, and projects to empower staff to think in longer blocks without interruption.

The ideas above might sound obvious but they have been shown to build a better team with higher quality output from yourself as a manager and your staff, and ultimately foster a productive corporate culture that builds a better bottom line.

There’s no time like the present – to change the way you work….

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