If you have the time to read this (I’ll bet that you don’t), I want to tell you about a very prevalent and destructive force that is now taking over our industry. What force? It’s the force destroying boundaries on time. The walls have been knocked down, the fences leveled, and the lines erased.
As I travel around the country as a speaker, trainer, and consultant, I see more and more disturbing signs of there being absolutely no boundaries on people’s time as it relates to work. Here are some symptoms that I’ve seen lately:
- Employees that routinely receive 200-300 e-mails each day, and as a result, they’re frustrated and aren’t ever able to catch up.
- Employees who are expected to call into conference calls and answer
- E-mails while on vacation. (I wish I was kidding)
- People multitasking using technology, such as sending an E-mail while they’re on a conference call.
- Thinning attendance at our industry conferences.
- Executives who sit in the audience in tears when I tell a moving story about lack of life balance in a keynote speech. They tell me afterward my story was about them.
- E-mails from clients that are sent during the weekend, both day and night.
- Voicemails from clients that are left on any day, including weekends, ranging from 6 A.M. to 12 P.M.
I believe it is time for us as leaders to take responsibility this problem, because I think that, whether we realize it or not, we are either implicitly or explicitly causing it. Employees are running themselves ragged, and definitely have no life balance. This is causing difficulty for people, taking a toll not only in their lives, but also on the lives of their families. It’s time for a change.
Since we’re leading the charge in the front of the pack, here are some things you can do to help turn yourself around and to help team members regain some control of their time boundaries.
- Insist that employees be allowed to actually go on vacation
Many times on conference calls, I hear background noises such as seagulls at the beach, and the loud rumble of amusement park rides. When someone asks that person where they are, they answer, “I’m on vacation.” Everyone says, “Have a good time,” but they already haven’t! They had to call in to a stupid, unnecessary conference call. As a leader, you should demand that employees don’t answer e-mail or dial in to conference calls while they are on vacation. The idea behind vacation is to vacate and to get a break from day-to-day work. If they do not get away from work, they come back from vacation feeling no different, and aren’t refreshed. So then what has been the point? Have we halfway ruined the family vacation? Some people in leadership roles tell me that they cannot afford to have employees on vacation, not checking their e-mail or calling in to conference calls. “You know in our industry now- we run really lean.” This is the leaders fault, because they simply have not cross trained another employee to handle those responsibilities. I also see a not so subtle pressure put on people to do some work while on vacation, which even if not spoken is definitely implied, and this simply is not fair.
- Control meetings
One of the reasons that many people in the workplace don’t have enough time to do their work is that they’re going to meetings which are either not effective or are entirely unneeded. Make sure that all meetings are necessary, have an agenda in advance, are time bound, and begin and end when they should. Try to determine which people should be at the meeting and which people should not be. These simple approaches will save lots of time per week for each employee.
- Control conference calls
I see so many conference calls that are unproductive, ineffective, and poorly run, because they’re not well facilitated by the person leading the call. In fact, on some calls, I’m not exactly sure who is running the call, because no one is leading. Conference calls should have specific agenda items to cover, and have a disciplined commitment to having a beginning and an end at a certain time.
- Try to create control of e-mail and how it is used
When employees are getting 300 e-mails per day, this tells me that people are sending e-mails which are unnecessary or inefficient. In many cases, e-mails are sent by people who work in the same office. They could have eliminated the necessity for an e-mail by literally poking their head around the corner and having a two-minute conversation, which would save an hour of reading and response time. In one of my training sessions, two employees were talking about getting too many emails from one another, and about the fact that this added a great deal toward the volume of emails per day. When asked further, I discovered that these employees actually sat in the same office with their chairs back to back. The reason that they sent each other so many e-mails is that they were both on the phone throughout most of the day. They figured it was more efficient to send an e-mail. Here is an idea: assemble your group together and try to create some rules or guidelines around what situations and instances would be appropriate for e-mail and when it would be more appropriate for phone calls, conversations, ( remember those?) or voicemails. The abuse and volume of e-mails is the most overwhelming problem that I see with my corporate clients today. The team is overwhelmed. Try to get your team out of the “whelm.”
- Don’t expect people to work through lunch and breaks
In many organizations, I see employees who literally work through every lunch every day, all week. They simply get their lunch and eat at their desk, or are asked to have lunch with another team member while working. Either way, they’ll work through lunch to get things done. This practice is an actual drain on productivity, because employees are going all day with no breaks, and by the end of the week they are completely and utterly exhausted. In some organizations, this practice is directed, and in and other organizations it is simply implied, but in many organizations it seems to be an expectation of a culture. (see how crazy in cable we are? we work non- stop, and we are proud of it!) Team members definitely feel the implied pressure to work both through lunch and breaks.
- Watch for burnout
As the leader, make sure to watch out for symptoms of burnout on your team. When you see people getting uncharacteristically frazzled, irritated, and frustrated, this is certainly a sign of burnout. When you see employees getting sick more often, this is also a symptom of burnout. I know that it is an expectation of a leader to get results. But if your folks are in a burned-out mindset, they ultimately will not get more done. So it is up to you as a leader to try to find a reasonable balancing point so that your team members can have some degree of life balance. They look to you to define what the balance will be.
- Model the behavior yourself
In many organizations, it seems to be a badge of honor for people in leadership positions to come in early, stay late, work weekends, work on vacation, and send e-mails at all sorts of crazy hours of the day and night. What people in leadership positions do not realize is they are modeling the very behavior that they want their folks to exhibit. Some do it on purpose. For example, when Michael Eisner became the CEO of Disney, he told his team, “Don’t bother to come in on Sunday if you don’t come in on Saturday.” At that time, admittedly, Disney was in a crisis situation. Still, Eisner was encouraging his team members to literally work 7 days a week. This is not a reasonable expectation for any situation. So it is up to you as a leader to model life balance. To not call in when you are on vacation, to not answer e-mails any day of the weekend. It is also your obligation to start talking about and coaching people about having life balance, because morale will definitely increase and they will be more productive.
So where does this leave us? I believe it is up to you to draw boundaries where they need to be drawn, to make reasonable decisions about what kind of hours you want your team members to work, and to not allow work to dominate people’s lives. It is up to you to stop the insanity. If we do not start to draw boundaries on time, we may win the battle for results, but ultimately lose the war, in which our best employees are going to be the casualties.
(Shawn Doyle is President and founder of New Light Learning and Development Inc. From 2000- 2004, Doyle was the Vice President of Learning and Development at Comcast University and has authored 10 books on leadership, creativity sales and has a contract to publish 6 more books in the next three years. His web site is www.shawnspeakscable.com).