It’s been 20 years since the Personal Digital Assistant started tearing down the wall between work and life. If there was any wall still standing, the global pandemic took it all the way down. Now that home is the office, work-life balance has become an impossible dream. Leaders need to shift their focus away from the unachievable goal of balance and establish a work-life boundary instead.
It sounds easier than it is. There are constant signals coming from organizations and their leaders that suggest it’s just not OK to disconnect:
- Emails come in around the clock with an implicit expectation that you’ll respond prior to the next workday because your leaders do
- Urgent meetings are scheduled outside the boundaries of the standard workday, even when all of the participants are in the same time zone
- Text messages have become the norm so even if you’ve left your computer behind, colleagues can, and do, reach you
As quoted in a recent Economist feature about “Always On” cultures, “People match the hierarchy, so senior people’s boundary-management style is what lower-level workers follow.” On average, every hour a leader works after-hours translates to 20 minutes of additional after-hours time spent by direct-reports. This habit creates a culture of overwork — not better work. It’s time to take a hard look at how you, as a leader, manage your own boundaries and the impact your decisions make on the culture of your team.
Here’s how to lead the way in resetting your team’s work-life boundary:
Declare your intention. It’s not sufficient for you to merely reset your own boundary, particularly if the culture has dramatically different expectations. You’ll need to say it out loud — probably more than once — for your team to trust that you mean it. It’s also important to acknowledge how large a shift it might actually be: “We’ve gotten into an unhealthy habit of working around the clock and it’s taking a toll. I am going to take the lead in unplugging during non-work hours and I ask that you do the same.”
Define what constitutes ‘urgent’. While there are certainly time-sensitive knowledge worker roles, such as technology support for key systems, most of the 100 million workers in the US are not office firefighters. And yet, many organizations have adopted responsiveness habits such that fire drills are the norm rather than the exception. As a leader you can curb these behaviors by setting specific expectations for the level of urgency of any request. When it is truly urgent, provide the team with guidance on what can be slowed down to make space for the new priority.
Demonstrate that you mean it. Resist the temptation to send emails outside of reasonable business hours. It’s been quantitatively demonstrated that leaders who send emails on Sunday, for example, are significantly more likely to have teams that do as well. While many of us prefer to catch up on email during the post-bedtime quiet or over the weekend, it’s not healthy for our teams to witness our off-hours work habits in real-time. Your draft folder is an easy way to store your responses until Monday morning and then hit send. It’s a small act with giant benefits.
Knowledge workers across the globe are exhausted from the relentlessness of an always-on culture and a seemingly endless workweek. Be part of the solution by beefing up your boundaries so your team can too.
by Shani Harmon, Chief Executive Officer