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The role of people managers in ending the ‘always-on’ culture
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The role of people managers in ending the ‘always-on’ culture

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Do you find yourself replying to emails at odd hours, and then wonder why your team never turns off its work mode? Let’s pledge not to fall into the ‘just in case’ trap, urges Priya Sunil.

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“We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to-do’ list.”

This quote by the former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, is something that I, and every other person in my life can relate to. In today’s remote working era – where employees work, sleep, play and live within the same space – it’s harder than ever to detach from work, long after working hours. And this is how we forget to prioritise our personal time and needs.

This phenomenon, cited in research as the “always-on” effect, has fatigued employees across the world. The jarring issue is – why is this so, especially at a time where many companies and leaders are finally pushing for work-life harmony?

George Xavier, Head of HR, Asia Region at FLSmidth, has the answer: “I call it the ‘just in case’ phenomenon; which makes us create a culture of responsiveness that is beyond the definition of working hours or the Eisenhower Matrix. Some of the reasons may seem very legit – ‘what if the client calls’, ‘in-case boss needs something’, etc; and the problem amplifies when we start expecting the same from each other.”

Ralston Vaz, Director Human Resources, Integral Ad Science, India & APAC, adds that in today's times, when more companies are supporting employees to work from anywhere, "there is great potential for employees to be more responsive and productive no matter where they are."

"However, telecommuting is no longer just about responding to emails and joining phone calls. Today, it involves Zoom meetings, real-time collaboration platforms such as Asana, Google Workspace, or Slack, and staying connected via smartphones or other devices.

Adding to this complexity, many employees collaborate with team members across different time zones daily. With all these connection points, it’s easy for employees to feel that they have switched to an always-on work experience. - Ralston Vaz, Director HR, Integral Ad Science, India & APAC

Personally, I do sometimes find myself replying to work chats or emails when I’m off work ‘just in case’ it’ll help speed things up (ask my editor, she's the first to nag me to stop doing that), but I admit, it takes a conscious effort to detach.

The good thing is that people managers can take steps to help put an end to this overwork syndrome that’s hitting employees. Here are three things that I believe can help.

#1 Set clearer/realistic plans and expectations

Better planning and expectation management can be very helpful, George points out.

While urgent matters are escalated and/or responded to, the classification of ‘urgency’ should be fine-tuned continuously to ensure everyone understands it in the same way. - George Xavier, Head of HR, Asia Region at FLSmidth

"This should be reiterated during team meetings, even questioning weekend email traffic from anyone who could have waited for Monday.”

These, he adds, are small steps that will go a long way. Regular check-ins along the week can also ensure realistic conversations about employee workloads, and give a gauge to how invested they are in prioritising their personal time.

In my team, my manager is huge on both – setting clearer/realistic expectations, and ensuring we end work on time – which on most days works well.

As for George, he says his “process of self-improvement is ongoing.” “For starters, I have reduced the frequency of reaching out for the phone to check emails and try never to email a team member during non-working hours and weekends. I must also acknowledge my spouse for her perseverance in ensuring the same. :)"

#2 Be the example

Whether it’s through work norms or behaviours, people managers are the example that employees follow. So if you’re emailing your staff after office hours, they will feel obliged to respond to you in the wee hours as well. If you’re sending out emails and calendar invites during the weekend, they will feel the pressure to acknowledge or risk being labelled as ‘unresponsive’.

Frankly, it’s not always easy to role-model in today’s flexible working environment, where employees are encouraged to work ‘when’ and ‘where’ they work best, for example, after putting the kids to bed at night.

Having said that, perhaps the solution doesn’t have to be consistently black-and-white. As a role model, make it clear what you and your team stand for – the norms that people are expected to follow, but also the flexibility they’re provided within the system. Remind employees to speak up and take charge of their schedules – if something is not working out, encourage them to talk to you about it.

A pro tip I’ve learnt from my own manager is that if she happens to send an email or message in the work chat after work, she always makes it clear that there is no urgency to reply until the next working day.

Another great idea came to me from an Australia-based CHRO who signs off his emails with the message: “Heads up: Our flexible working policy means some emails will come through at a time that may not suit you. If this happens, know there’s no need to immediately reply.”

#3 Create flexibility in your culture

An always-on culture from the top will keep employees glued to their phones all night - and the opposite is equally true. A culture that supports and seeks to provide employee wellbeing is likely to see better results  in this area, when driven by leadership sponsorship.

Vaz highlights: "When companies enable employees with the technology and flexibility they need to work successfully, we can foster a healthy work environment together. Importantly, this does require support from leadership that always-on work culture is neither expected nor revered."

At IAS, this is done through 'no meeting' days that encourage employees to step away from Zoom or phone calls, using the time instead for creative thinking, planning, or other work projects. There are also regular programmes such as 'Summer Fridays', when employees can log off a few hours early every Friday from June to September and spend time on outside activities.

While there are such organisations that provide active support, sometimes, it can’t be helped if your organisation’s culture normalises overworking - but don’t let this demotivate you or affect how you lead your team. While you can’t change the culture, every little bit you do as a people manager counts. This means you can still implement best practices within your team, on a personal level, because what matters most is they can count on you to lead them right.

Through it all, not everyone has to take the same journey to reach the end goal. Rather, it’s what works best for your team that will pave the way and the results will come.

Keep a lookout for this column in our upcoming Q2 edition of the e-mag! In this edition, you can also look forward to a range of enriching interviews with leaders across APAC - from Facebook, PLG, Citi, 3M, and more.

Photo / 123RF

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