Make sure everyone understands communication boundaries
Robby Macdonell, CEO of RescueTime, never expected a response when he would email his staff late at night.
His messages even included a special footer that indicated he did not expect anyone get back to him immediately. However, his staff didn’t take it that way.
“People generally appreciated the sentiment, but the fact that I was sending it at all meant that people still felt like if, ‘If he’s up working at 11 p.m., I should be too,’” Macdonell said.
Reaching employees has never been simpler, but that does not necessarily make the workplace more productive. Email, instant messaging, and other communication platforms can all distract workers from their core jobs.
To make the most of communication tools, companies must be deliberate in how they are used, says Macdonell, whose company specializes in helping workers and organizations understand how their work day is spent. He suggests that employers:
Recognize the issue. Communication is important, but workers often see the variety of communication channels as a concern and can be overloaded by them.
“The issue seems to be that it is so pervasive,” Macdonell said. “When everybody has Outlook and Slack open all the time, communication is the dominant activity at that point.”
Is it a distraction or task? Employees should understand where communication fits in as a priority in their day. There may be an unspoken expectation that employees are continually monitoring communication channels at the expense of their core work.
“People come to work expecting to work hard, and there are just so many things that are work but don’t relate to their primary task that can get in the way,” Macdonell noted.
Stablish boundaries. “Very few managers make it clear how their employees are expected to communicate with each other or with them,” Macdonell said. “Talk to employees specifically about response times and after-hours communication.”
Workers should know whether a communication tool always needs to be on, how quickly they are expected to respond to messages, and whether after-hours responses are expected.
“Any time you introduce a new tool that’s always on and always connected, what’s the expectation set with your employees?” Macdonell asked.
Don’t assume social media is the culprit. When people consider which communication tools are taking up most of their time, social media often is blamed. Email, however, is more often where the most time is spent.
Applications that track how an employee’s day is spent, including the amount of time spent on various digital platforms, can provide data on which tasks are taking the most time.
“If you don’t have that information, your brain goes to, ‘I must have been spending too much time on Facebook,’” Macdonell said. “I’ve seen over and over again that that’s generally not the case.”
Set face-to-face boundaries as well. “One of the biggest challenges we see is people stopping by to say, ‘Hey, do you have a minute?’” Macdonell said. “It’s never a minute.”
A company can institute policies that protect focused work time, such as allowing an employee to have quiet hours without digital or face-to-face distractions. Workers could agree to respect a coworker’s privacy when a sign is up that says, “Working now, please come back later.”
Set the tone. When it comes to establishing work day boundaries and managing communication, leaders should remember that their actions make an impact. Macdonell has learned his lesson with late-night emails, and now uses a tool that allows him to write emails any time an issue is top-of-mind, but batches them so they’re sent at a more appropriate hour.
“The biggest thing you can do is set expectations around communication,” Macdonell said. “Very few managers make it clear how their employees are expected to communicate with each other or with them.”
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