I recently got a great email from a client named Colin. We’ve done extensive work with his company over the last five years, and Colin will occasionally reach out and give me a great idea for a blog post or a podcast.
Colin listed for me the ways that his colleagues can reach him: work email (which he can access at his desk or via mobile device); desk phone; mobile phone; voice mail at either number; text message; internal company messenger system; internal company social network; two company Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tools; and, for the nostalgia fans, there’s even regular posted mail or fax.
None of the channels on this list is optional. These are the standard tools within his company, that everyone uses. In addition to this list, Colin also chooses to participate in things like LinkedIn, where most of his colleagues could also reach him. On the days when he is in the office, someone could also walk down the hall and speak to him directly. And of course, in addition to the constant access of all the channels, we can’t forget to include the multitude of meetings, in person or virtual, that everyone gets yanked into, many of which seem to lack a clear purpose.
Colin posed a critical question and asked me to give it a think. His simple question was, “When does accessibility begin to negatively impact productivity?” I’ve been thinking about it all week, and when I think about that line that separates access and productivity, I think we all need to look behind us… we crossed the line a long time ago.
Everyone has anecdotes about the invasion of their professional (and now even personal) space and how constant access from others limits productivity. I think most reasonable professionals will agree that access is good, but too much access will get in the way of productivity. At some point, we all need to just be able to do some work. If we are constantly answering email, phone calls, instant messages, etc., when will we actually do the work that people are expecting from us?
This is a chronic problem, and one that everyone has to deal with, large or small companies alike. So, how do we deal? I think there are some clear and simple strategies:
- Choose the channels that you are going to be available on. And when. Just because your company (or society) provides a channel, does not mean you HAVE to use it. Do you really need to have your instant messenger open all day long, with windows open for all ten of your team members? Unless it provides clear value to you, then consider the choice not to use it. Or at least limit when you will be actively monitoring it.
- Schedule time when you are NOT available, and just working. If you use an inter-office calendar, put down some time when you are not to be disturbed. If you have work to do, protect the time on the calendar, lest someone jumps in and tries to fill it up. I do this on my own calendar, weeks ahead of time, and I do it aggressively before big meetings or deadlines, when I know there will be lots of work that needs to get done.
- During those periods when you are not available, take your email offline, and put your phone on “do not disturb” so that calls go straight to voice mail. When you are busy, close down the channels. Quiet the alerts. People are not always likely to know when you are in “do not disturb” mode, so you can’t fault them if they reach out to you. If you answer, the fault is actually yours. So, turn things off, put the mobile phone on silent, etc.
- If people visit you all the time, find a quiet place away from your desk where you can get some work done. For some people, a closed door is a good sign. Others ignore that signal, and walk in anyway. So, you may need to move.
I don’t think there are any magic answers here… just common sense. Society gives us “all access passes” to each other. But for each of us, it is a personal choice when we will honor that all access pass. Don’t be afraid to turn the channels off when you need to. I do it for myself, and I encourage my colleagues to do the same. I want them to get their work done. Does it sometimes frustrate me when I can’t get the person I need, when I need them? Yes, of course it does. But it also frustrates me when the work our team needs to do does not get done.
And finally, in addition to thinking about how you will protect your own time, and limit the access that others have to you, spend some time thinking about the culture within your group and your organization. Make it clear within your team that you encourage people to do the same. Empower them to be productive. And then watch what happens!
Thanks for the note, Colin. Great topic.
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