Technology has set the expectation that workers are always available—but can also be used to help set limits, argues Jennifer Deal, senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, in the Wall Street Journal.
Many employers expect workers to be available at all hours, and employees feel tremendous pressure to be responsive—seeing it as a way to get ahead. Even when there is no policy saying workers should be accessible outside business hours, many employers assume they will be available via smartphone. As a result, people end up effectively working 13 hours a day—or more, according to Deal's research.
Contributing to longer hours, work days have become increasingly filled by meetings that take up valuable work time, but accomplish little.
However, Deal argues, technology can also be part of the solution. Employers can "use the same technology that complicates our lives to relieve the pressure we feel" to be constantly productive, she writes.
Related: Leave policies and paid time off for staff and faculty
Deal identifies four ways that offices can use technology to protect workers' time:
Get a handle on "Reply All": While hitting "Reply All" can be a useful tool for keeping people informed, Deal says, "many Reply Alls are just political positioning." However, simply asking people to limit "Reply All" may not work. Instead, Deal encourages systems administrators to "set a limit on the number of people Reply All will reach," and count distribution lists as multiple recipients.
Make senders prioritize: In most offices, the burden of sifting through emails falls entirely on the recipient. However, Deal argues, it would be more efficient to shift this responsibility to the sender. As she explains, Microsoft Outlook can let senders label messages as "response required," "for your information," and other choices. People may not remember to label their messages when they are sent, but email servers can be set up to require it, "similar to how an email can’t be sent without an email address."
Automatically hold back low importance emails: If companies set up their email system so that messages must be marked by priority, it creates new possibilities for managing work-life balance. For instance, Deal gives the example of only "immediate response needed" emails being sent to people's smartphones outside of working hours.
Limit meetings: Many people feel pressure to work outside of business hours because so much of their normal working day is taken up by meetings. But again, software can help. Deal suggests "[setting] up the calendar so that employees simply couldn’t be scheduled in more than five hours of meetings a day" (Deal, Wall Street Journal, 10/27).
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