The right to be unavailable

After a workshop, participants often tell us how happy they are that they had a whole day to exchange ideas and experiences with each other for a day without being disturbed by emails, phone calls or chat messages in  MS Teams.

Speed matters: others expect us to respond immediately to their messages.

According to the Harvard Business Review, the time we spend at work on emails, "instant messaging," phone and video calls has only increased  in recent years and is now taking up to 85% of all work time.  

We seem to have little choice. Until recently you could show how committed you were by starting early and working late. Today you do so by being available anytime, anywhere and by responding quickly to every digital message. 

There is a conflict between availability and productivity

Organizations seem to expect their employees to be as productive as possible while being quasi-constantly available.  But it is hard to deliver quality work when you are  constantly disturbed or distracted.

Coming up with a solution to a complex problem, writing a text, analyzing data, devising a all takes time and any disturbance disrupts your concentration. Hybrid working, with its option to retreat to your home or elsewhere whenever needed, should eliminate continuous concentration intrusions yet it turns out that nothing could be further from the truth.

The negative impact on productivity and (mental) health is huge.

Microsoft, for example, has done research on the time we spend in meetings. Today, office workers have 2.5 times more meetings than before the corona pandemic. According to that same study, we compensate for all that meeting time (and all the other distractions) by opening our laptops again after 9 p.m. to work for a few more hours.

A manager may insist that you shouldn't bother with work in the evening and that you’re not supposed to reply to emails during the weekend, but in many workplaces a culture has originated in which permanent availability feels like the only logical choice for those who want to show commitment.

This is not only detrimental to our productivity, the impact on our mental health is even greater. Stress and burnouts are caused in part by a lack of control and too much unpredictability in the course of a working day. When we ask in our workshops what is the definition of a really satisfying workday, the most common response is : “Having been able to do what I intended to do that day." 

How can you fix this? 

You can try to ban email traffic outside normal office hours. Unfortunately, that kind of approach sounds very patronizing, nor is it practical when you are working in different time zones.

It seems more sensible to make a number of agreements with your colleagues and your manager:

  1. Decide together what is an acceptable response time for everyone and stick to it.
  2. Before sending a meeting request, ask yourself if it is really necessary to meet. Limit the number of participants and keep the agenda short.
  3. When you do send out the request, be clear what the meeting is about and what is expected of meeting participants so that they can prepare/reject/appoint a better choice.
  4. Leave some time in your agenda between consecutive digital meetings.
  5. Respect the agenda of others.
  6. Help and support each other.
  7. Establish good rules about availability but also keep them limited. Let all employees determine their own work schedule as much as possible.
  8. Ensure that all data and background information is available to all employees when they need it, without them having to ask for it.

You can agree on more things but that will only work if everyone, and first and foremost all the managers, stick to it.

Don't wait for the others to make the first move.

You certainly don't have to wait for your supervisor to make the first move. Take charge yourself. Say what you need, what information is missing, when you want to be able to reach colleagues and when you want to be left alone.

And if all that fails, remember that the world won't stop turning and a business won't stop making a profit because someone was not available at all times.



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