As a business coach, I find that while a few challenges are particular to individual coaching clients, many are universal. In part one of this article, we talked about the pandemic "Always On" corporate culture to which all businesses are susceptible, no matter their size and no matter their industry. We saw how noxious this culture can be -- how it can increase employee turnover and reduce employee engagement while its influence spreads to vendors, stakeholders, and employees' families. We discovered that this culture usually creeps up on businesses gradually when business owners and project leaders start messaging during off hours, inadvertently setting implicit expectations that their teams should do the same.
Now that we understand the problem, its scope, its symptoms, and its most common cause, we can get to work on a solution.
As promised, here's a simple four-step process to turn off that Always On culture -- an experiment that we have helped many of our business coaching clients design and execute in order to explore and implement new communication strategies. But before you dive into that experiment, there's something else you have to do first:
Bring key staff together and ask what prompts people to feel like they need to check and respond to messages on nights and weekends. I think their answers will surprise you.
In many cases, you'll discover that employees believe that you expect them to be on 24/7. Perhaps they worry about letting down the company or their co-workers, about losing a promotion, or even losing their jobs.
You may find that, for other employees, the problem is an addiction to email and their other project management tools. They're obsessed with staying up to date and can't bear to leave a message unanswered or an issue unaddressed.
Once you have some data, you'll be ready to design a ninety-day culture-revitalizing experiment. Set a timeline for adopting new behaviors at the thirty, sixty, and ninety day marks. Determine how you'll monitor for compliance to the new standards and how you'll measure success. Define measurable criteria that will tell you whether your staff is happier, more engaged, better-performing, and better-retained.
And, as you design this experiment, be sure to take these four steps:
First, set a clear expectation for when employees should be on and when they should be off. (Note the use of the word "should." Encourage employees to be as strict in adhering to their time off as they are in adhering to their time on.)
For many businesses, messaging can stop at the end of the workday and the workweek. If your business requires more responsiveness, perhaps you can establish schedules for who needs to cover which nights and weekends. Remember that even in 24/7 industries, from medicine to security to tech, employees have time off. Companies in these industries use shifts to simultaneously ensure full coverage and healthy lifestyles. Your company should too.
Of course, emergencies do come up in any field, so you should establish a procedure for handling them. But, even as you establish these safeguards, be sure to clarify that emergencies don't come up daily or weekly or even monthly. They come up one or two or three times a year. They're one in five thousand.
As far as what a good emergency protocol looks like, it can be as simple as guaranteeing employees that they will receive a call or text alerting them when they have an urgent message in their inbox or on Slack. Knowing that there's an emergency procedure in place will assure your team that it's safe to turn off.
Second, remember that this experiment isn't only about your employees; it's about you too. We saw in part one that if you send out messages late at night and on weekends, employees will follow suit. So you need to lead by example and change your own behavior.
Third, if you want to change the culture, you need to give people permission to discuss it. You can continue the conversation and help break the taboo by holding one-on-one check-ins where you discuss how the experiment is going with individual employees. You should also check in at larger meetings too. This is a great way to make it clear that there are no exceptions: you expect everyone from the rank and file to the top brass to participate in this experiment.
Fourth and finally, explore what filters and scaffolding you can establish to make the experiment a success.
Filters stop, delay, and redirect the invasive push messages that come in through email, text, and productivity tools (Asana, Zoho, Basecamp, Slack, etc.). One simple solution is to establish that everyone will disable push notifications during their time off. Other helpful practices include setting up out-of-office auto-replies and having a co-worker, administrator, or assistant screen your email during time off.
Scaffolding provides systemic structural support that can help change the culture. For instance, you can establish a new CC policy to reduce the email deluge. Define clear standards for when to loop someone in and when to hit Reply All. If your company uses the CC field to keep each other apprized of the latest, perhaps you can replace that practice with regular update meetings.
You can also create even stronger scaffolding by launching client-facing update tools. Imagine if the Amazon staff got an email every time someone wanted to check the status of a package; they would never be able to get anything done. Just as Amazon provides customers with order tracking, you can provide clients with a web-tool that they can log into for updates.
As your ninety-day experiment comes to a close, ask yourself: Has this change helped my company? Has it made my life and the lives of my employees better?
I bet the answer's yes.
If you're interested in discovering more ways that we've helped our business coaching clients improve their companies and their lives, you can click here to download a free copy of my newest book, Build a Business, Not a Job.