Leadership and Time

Leading with Respect for Time Boundaries: Making the Most of 24 Hours

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 corporate America. It’s the one eroding the distinction between employees’ professional and personal time. The metaphorical walls have been knocked down, the fences leveled, and the lines erased.

As a speaker, trainer, and consultant who travels extensively as part of my job, 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 noticed lately:

Employees who routinely receive 200-300 emails each day, and as a result, they’re frustrated because they’re rarely able to catch up. 

  • Employees who are expected to call into conference calls and answer emails while on vacation. 
  • People multitasking electronically (for example, sending email while participating in conference calls). 
  • Executives who sit in the audience in tears when I tell a moving story in a keynote speech about lack of life balance. They tell me afterward my story was about them.
  • Emails from clients that are sent during the weekend, both day and night.
  • Voicemails from clients that are left between 6 a.m. and midnight on any day, including weekends.

As leaders, we must take responsibility for this problem because we are either implicitly or explicitly causing it. Employees are running themselves ragged and definitely have no life balance because work has followed them home from the workplace. The blurring of the line between work and non-work time is taking a toll not only on employees’ lives but also on those of their families. It’s time for a change.

Since we’re leading the charge from the front of the pack, here are some things we can do to turn ourselves around and help team members (and ourselves) regain some control of time.

1. Insist that employees be allowed to actually go on vacation.

Many times while I’m on conference calls, I hear background noises such as seagulls at the beach or the loud rumble of amusement park rides. When I ask participants where they are, they answer, “I’m on vacation.” Everyone tells them to “Have a good time,” but how can they? They’ve had to call into a stupid, unnecessary conference call.

As a leader, you should demand that employees not answer email or dial in to conference calls while they are on vacation.  The idea behind vacation is to vacate and get a break from day-to-day responsibilities. If they do not get away from work, they come back from vacation feeling as though they never left. They aren’t refreshed, so what has been the point? Have we halfway ruined the family vacation?

Some leaders tell me they cannot afford to have employees go on vacation unless they check their email or take part in conference calls. This is the leaders’ fault. They have not cross-trained enough employees to handle their coworkers’ responsibilities.  Whether directly ordered or subtly implied, expecting employees to work while on vacation simply is not fair, nor is it good for the organization. 

2. 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 that are either unproductive or unnecessary.  Make sure that all meetings are necessary, have an agenda in advance, are governed by a time limit, and begin and end when they should. Try to determine which people should or should not be at the meeting. These simple approaches alone will save employees lots of time each week.

3. Control conference calls.

So many conference calls are confusing, 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 in charge since no one is leading.  Conference calls should have specific agenda items for participants to cover, and all who take part should be committed to beginning and ending at a certain time.   

4. Try to create control of email and know how to use it efficiently.

When employees are getting 300 emails each day, this tells me that people are sending messages that are unnecessary or inefficient.  In many cases, people send emails to coworkers who work in the same office. They could have avoided writing an email 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 that this added greatly to their email volume each day.  When asked further, they revealed they actually sat in the same office with their chairs back to back. Because they were both on the phone throughout most of the day, they figured it was more efficient to send emails than speak to each other. 

At the top of the problems list my corporate clients face today is dealing with email because of its misuse, abuse, and volume. Here is an idea: assemble your group and reach agreement on situations that would best be handled by email, by phone, or by personal, face-to-face conversation. By establishing guidelines for when, why, and how to communicate with those who send emails, you and your team can save time by quickly distinguishing between those messages that require written responses and those that don’t.  

5. 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 desks 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 actual breaks. And by the end of the week, they are completely and utterly exhausted. 

In some organizations, this practice is directed; in others, it is simply implied; in many more, it seems to be an expectation of the culture. See how crazy we are? We work nonstop and are proud of it!   

6. Watch for burnout.

Look for symptoms of burnout among your team members.  When you see people getting uncharacteristically frazzled, irritated, and frustrated, this is certainly a sign of burnout.  When you notice employees are more frequently absent because of illness, this is also a burnout signal. I know it is a leader’s job to get results, but if your employees are burned out, they will get nothing done. It is up to you to establish a reasonable stopping point so that your team members can have some degree of life balance. They look to you to determine when they have reached that point.  

7. 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 during vacation, and send emails at all crazy hours of the day and night.  What people in these roles do not realize is they are modeling the very behavior that they want their folks to exhibit. Some do it on purpose. 

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, Disney was in an admitted crisis situation. Still, Eisner was encouraging his team members to work literally 7 days a week.  This is not a reasonable expectation in any situation.  So it is up to you as a leader to model life balance by not calling in when you are on vacation and not answering email during the weekend.  It is also your obligation to start talking about and coaching employees on having life balance because morale will definitely increase, and they will be more productive when you do.

It is up to you to draw boundaries where they need to be drawn, to make reasonable decisions about the number of hours you want your team members to work, and to prevent work from dominating people’s lives. It is up to you to stop the insanity. If we do not start to set boundaries on work time, we may win the battle for results but ultimately lose the war, with our best employees being the casualties.

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