Remote work, especially in a world affected by Covid-19, naturally leads to “flex time.” Employees with small children might be getting the majority of their work done at night after the kids are in bed. Others are working early and hoping to quit early. Still, others are starting late and working late.
If everyone on your team is working different hours, you may be getting emails and messages at all hours of the day, night, or weekend — which can quickly create an always available, or “always-on” environment. That might be necessary in some industries during these challenging times, but certainly not in every industry and not for everyone in any industry. But once this takes root in your company culture, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to “reset” later. And “always-on” isn’t sustainable. It increases pressure and quickly turns your company into an unpleasant place to work. It might cause even the most dedicated employees to consider other offers.
I’ve been helping clients implement policies that prevent this for years, but it’s even more important now that employees are suddenly thrust, unprepared, into this unfamiliar work situation. So how can you accommodate your employees’ needs while still protecting your culture and your team’s work-life balance? The key is to embrace and encourage flex time while also defining clear “communication hours” (for example, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.). Outside of those hours, employees should be encouraged to change their settings to “Do Not Disturb” and to use the “schedule send” feature of their email client so that messages only get delivered during communication hours.
If any correspondence must happen outside of the set communication hours, such as for urgent or time-sensitive issues, make them phone or text only. This way people can comfortably close down all other communication channels like email, Slack, instant messenger, etc. The act of having to call or text someone is usually enough to give the sender a pause to think, “Do I really need this person now, or can the communication wait?” This allows everyone on your team to work whenever it is appropriate for them, but not feel like they have to work all the time to accommodate everyone else’s schedule. These challenging times don’t make downtime any less important. In fact, your team won’t handle the increased stress well without appropriate downtime.
Here’s how to improve the odds of success when implementing this policy:
First, explicitly acknowledge the problem and emphasize the importance of downtime. This can be done in a “virtual town hall,” which is a useful practice to keep everyone connected if your team is remote. These can be live or recorded messages from the CEO and senior leadership. I recommend making these leadership communications on a regular basis and repeating the importance of downtime frequently for reinforcement. The message can be something like this, “We believe that downtime is important, and we recommend that you track the hours you spend working, and limit those to roughly 40 hours a week. Depending on your role, there may be times when more hours are required, but we expect and encourage you to balance busier times with intermittently lighter schedules.”
It may be tempting to refrain from giving this implicit instruction, especially if your organization is negatively impacted by the pandemic. But it will have a positive impact on your culture in the long term.
Second, establish clear guidelines about which communication channel should be used in which situation. You should continue to practice and enforce these guidelines even after stay-at-home orders are lifted and people come back to the office. For example, email should never be used in the case of urgent or time-sensitive communication. This treats email as a “synchronous” communication channel and it can never be that. No one is capable of monitoring every message in real-time, and to attempt it is an exercise in futility and a sure path to stress, overload, and eventually, burnout. The classic clip of Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory illustrates this problem perfectly.
If email is ever used to communicate urgent and time-sensitive communication, you’ll force your team to have to check every new message as it arrives, which is every few minutes for most people. This not only prevents downtime, but it also prevents your team from applying themselves to any of their important work in a thoughtful, undistracted way. I bet everyone on your team has work that requires more than a few minutes of sustained attention!
These communication guidelines should take the established “communication hours” into consideration. Below is an example to get you started. You should ensure you have a complete inventory of all the ways your team uses to communicate both internally and externally and adjust your guidelines accordingly.
Consider technology solutions to help reinforce your desired behaviour, such as programming the corporate server so even if emails are sent outside of communication hours, they aren’t delivered until the designated times. Check if your team collaboration tools have “global settings,” so everyone is automatically set to “Do Not Disturb” mode outside of the designated communication hours.
And finally, leaders must model the behaviour, or else it will never work. Anyone in the organization who manages others should work hard to follow the guidelines themselves, and also reward and discourage behaviours accordingly. For example, saying, “Thanks for being so responsive” to someone who answers an email outside of the defined communication hours sends a mixed message and will undermine the guidelines. Any “policy” that isn’t followed by leadership isn’t really a policy at all. When leaders don’t follow a policy, it erodes the trust, and therefore the culture, in an organization, because then you end up with “the official policy” and “the way everyone actually behaves.”
With businesses thrust into a new reality they didn’t plan for, it’s easy for unintended results to erode company culture. If specific attention isn’t given to the characteristics and consequences of the new reality, those unintended results will have detrimental effects that could last a long time. It’s not too late to implement policies that will benefit your team’s work-life balance while also protecting your organization’s culture.
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This article was originally written by Maura Thomas, an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity, attention management, and work-life balance. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, and author of Personal Productivity Secrets, Work Without Walls, and Attention Management. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article earlier this year. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.