Work/Life Balance and Email: an irreconcilable contradiction?
We all know the facts (if you don’t, check out my articles). Your typical knowledge worker receives 50 – 300 email messages daily of which 30% are useless, and spends some 20 hours a week dealing with them (The Israel Internet Association passed out a survey before my lecture there the other day, and the results affirm these facts once again). These numbers mean that people are trying to overcome their overflowing Inbox around the clock, including evenings, nights, weekends and vacations. Any pretense at Work/Life Balance has disappeared with the arrival of smartphones and their 24×7 connectivity.
This is understandable, because with the continuing inflow of messages, and the fear of losing control, people are bound to use the connectivity to try and stay ahead in this rat race against the inbox. Then there’s the implicit expectation that messages must be reacted to within minutes, which has grown insidiously and is now part of the work culture in most organizations. In fact, I once ran a pilot in a large company where a group of 300 people was enjoined by their management to NOT answer emails after hours unless truly urgent – and though they all agreed initially, they totally failed to stick to their agreement. The habits involved run deep indeed.
So – is Work/Life Balance a lost cause?
Some curious observations
Let me share some stories here:
- I once ran into a fellow manager who came late to the office with a small bag. When I inquired, he shared that he’d been swimming, a fitness exercise he practiced regularly before work. I asked him how he can make the time, and he said: “Once I’d decided to do this, I found I can make the time”. Guess what: he did very well in his career nonetheless.
- My late grandfather was a very busy man. He had no email, but he was involved with numerous businesses and had multiple duties to juggle. Yet he had adopted an inviolable rule that the weekend was to be dedicated purely to his family. Guess what: he had a successful, long and satisfying life, and was as serene and relaxed a man as you can hope to see.
- As a manager at Intel I noticed an interesting phenomenon: now and then an employee would start to go home early (well, early as in 5PM rather than the usual longer hours). This would happen to people in their forties, and it was clear that they’d suddenly realized that family and life do matter. And guess what: they continued to perform well at work even so.
Do you see a pattern?…
What you really need to do to restore your Work/Life balance
Ultimately, Work/Life Balance is in your own hands.
Here is the thing you need to do if you want to see your children grow (children, in case you wonder, are those short employees that run around in homes. A home is the place around your home office).
You need to set clear limits, and to communicate them clearly. Limits like these:
- I never check email on my BlackBerry after 7PM.
- I will leave the office at 5PM once a week to go to the Gym.
- After dinner, my time is devoted only to my family and my hobbies.
- I will never take a laptop with me to a family vacation.
- Or… anything else that works for you.
Whatever limit(s) you choose, stick to them. Don’t allow exceptions, waivers, or “best effort” clauses. Just do it, come hell or high water (they won’t come…)
Then communicate these limits clearly to your coworkers, manager, subordinates… so they know what to expect. Give them an emergency phone number to use if the office burns down or something – and only then. Then start living.
Why you can make this work – safely
You may be worried that this will be your undoing, because you’ll work less and be judged harshly for it. Actually, in the long run, you will probably deliver better and more output, because you’ll be less stressed, more alive, more balanced.
And here is a clear test case: consider people of faith. They have various non-negotiable duties to attend to; a good example is Orthodox Jews, who are forbidden to touch a computer, much less work on it, on the Sabbath. Here in Israel we have many people who observe this doctrine, and guess what: nobody is complaining, nobody is firing them for under-performing… because they perform perfectly well. Everyone simply knows that they don’t check email Saturdays, and – as Galileo had insisted – the Earth continues to turn.
In this example you see the two elements I mentioned: there is a firm limit – it doesn’t get any firmer than that – and the limit is clearly communicated. Expectations are well aligned, and everybody is happy.
Read this if you manage people
As a manager of people, you should be helping them negotiate this challenge. You should, because it is the right thing to do – think of the children – and also because it will improve people’s effectiveness in the long run, which is what being a manager is all about. How can you help?
- You can role model. I remember reading about the SAS Institute, a software company with legendary Work/Life practices, where not only do they encourage everyone to go home at 5PM – but the CEO is the first to leave. Such role modeling is invaluable. If you make your own Work/Life limits known, people will feel much safer to set similar limits for themselves.
- You can provide to employees training on how to solve Information Overload. I can help you with that, or direct you to local resources wherever you are – just ask me.
- You can deploy group agreements, like defining one or both weekend days – and selected holidays, like the coming ones – as “No Email Days”. Take care to do this right, though – as I said, habits in this space are hard to change.
- If you have enough clout, you may be able to apply more energetic solutions, like the one Volkswagen had deployed last year in Germany.
Of course, you can – and should – invent new ideas I hadn’t though of. Do let me know if you come up with a good one!