Are your late night emails hurting your team?
We’ve all had those moments after a long day when, after finally relaxing on your couch, you suddenly remember something crucial that needs to get done the next day. Before you know it, you’re firing off emails to remind your team members and coworkers, and by the time you take a breath, it’s way past your bedtime. Is this habit helping or hurting? How can you make sure you’re staying on top without interrupting your time away from work?
Maura Thomas is an expert in the topic of productivity, attention management, and work/life balance. She is a speaker, trainer, and founder of RegainYourTime.com and her new book is Work Without Walls: An Executive's Guide to Attention Management, Productivity, and the Future of Work. I recently interviewed Maura for the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed the pros and cons of everything from late-night emails to open floorplans. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: You say it’s a bad idea to send emails at all hours, even if you don’t expect an answer, tell me why.
Maura Thomas: It goes back to the same idea that the team is looking to the leader for cues, and so there are really two reasons. One is ambition and one is attention–a lack of attention management.
The ambition issue is it's just like in the training, “Hey boss, I want you think that I am as dedicated as you are, I want you to think that I am as skilled you as, I'm here. I'm an ‘A’ Player.” And so, you're sending an email as the leader, so the team is going to think, “Well, you're working, I'm working. I don't want you to think I'm slacking off if other people around here are working late,” so ambition is first reason.
And you never know if just one person—one person sending an email—and then one person responding and other people come into the office and see that there was an email chain overnight and realized that they missed something. Everybody wants an edge in his career. So now, that spreads through the organization like wildfire, and soon, nobody's getting any sleep, everybody's working around the clock, never unplugging. So that's the first issue.
And then the second one is attention management. People are so plugged in all day and I think we've forgotten that email is supposed to be asynchronous communication, and yet we treat it as if it's immediate response. Part of that again is from leadership, “Oh, we provide excellent customer service, and excellent customer services mean immediate response,” or fast response, but then ‘fast’ is never defined and it becomes the default that immediate is best.
You're checking all day long, every minute. Checking your email. Or you're not checking, you just have it open. You have your email open and downloading all day long, and so it's always calling your attention away, every minute you're getting distracted by the new email coming in. It's impossible to turn that off, that sort of desire to check, check, check, just because you've walked out the door, your brain doesn't know that it's not time to do that anymore, right? You're driving home, you stop at a stoplight, check your email. You get home, you pull into the garage before you get out of the car, you check your email. You're sitting with your family at dinner, you check your email. You're watching TV with your family, and your fingers are idly tapping, you don't really mean to work, but doing only one thing is boring these days, right?
So your fingers are just idly tapping on your phone while you're watching TV with your family, and before you know it, you've hit that little email icon and now you've gotta run upstairs and dig through your Dropbox, open your laptop, and find that file, because somebody needs it, and before you know it, it's 11:00 at night and you've missed the whole movie with your family. Your inability to control your attention is a real problem, but that's why sending emails at night sets the tone for the whole organization.
Kruse: Your new book, Work Without Walls, explores the issue of not having enough time in the day, but you say it's really a workplace culture problem.
Thomas: Yeah, the culture of productivity inside an organization is usually created without intention. It's the result of the habits of the people inside the company and especially of the leadership. Habits like late night emails. Habits like the boss is often the one to drop by and interrupt people all the time, because when the boss wants it, everybody drops everything, but really maybe that employee was deep in concentration on some task, although that is more and more rare, which is another problem. And if the bosses drop in on people, and that's always okay, then everybody gets the clue that, “Well, this is how we do things, we just get up and interrupt people all the time.”
And things like—a lot of people have two computer monitors, right? The organization provides two computer monitors or more, if you ask for it. And even that sends a message, because a good reason to use two computer monitors is if you're trying to do a task on the computer that requires a ton of real estate–two monitors' worth of real estate. But the way most people end up using their two monitors is to have their email open and downloading on one monitor, and whatever work they're trying to get done on the other monitor, and so it virtually guarantees that you are interrupted every 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 120 seconds. And so what I always say to the leaders I work with is, “Does any of the work that your team does at your organization require more than 60 seconds of sustained attention?”
But people inside organizations, and leaders, are guilty of acting as if attention isn't necessary. Focus isn't necessary. We hire people based on—I mean, nobody ever asks somebody in a job interview, “How many things can you do at once? How many emails do you manage to respond to in a day?” We ask people about their experience, about their knowledge, about their problem-solving, and then we drop them into a situation at our company where they can't even apply that knowledge and that wisdom in any meaningful way.
Kruse: What's your take on open office environments?
Thomas: I did a lot of research on that for my book, and I did in fact find one study that showed that all the good things about an open office plan were true, that it fostered collaboration, but it wasn't an academic study, it was a study by a manufacturer of office furniture.
All of the other research is that it's not particularly helpful. But really, I think that the open office floor plan is not to blame, it's the implementation of the floor plan, and again, it's the culture of the organization. I think you can implement a floor plan if you also consider the importance of quiet time, focus, and even privacy, on people's ability to bring their best work to their jobs every day. I advise my clients to do things like maybe desks on wheels, so that you can push your desks together when you're doing either low-focus work or collaborative work, but then when you have quiet intensive focus work that you need to do, you can just scoot over to the corner, put your back to the office, and that can give people the message that, “Hey, I'd really prefer not to be disturbed right now.”
Also, soft furnishings can muffle sound, so some offices with the high ceilings and the hard surfaces everywhere–they can get really loud. Things like curtains and rugs and plants, those kinds of things can muffle sound. I think privacy is really important for people, because some of the studies show that when people are being watched, they're uncomfortable and they lose some of their natural irreverence, and irreverence fosters creativity. We feel like we're being watched, and we spend some time worrying what it looks like we're doing instead of actually just getting our work done.
So instead of all glass perhaps try some frosted glass or stripes, so that people do have some privacy. Those are all some helpful things. Again, it's not the office itself, it's really the implementation.
Kruse: I always ask our listeners to become 1% better everyday. What's one specific thing we can do today to get a little bit better?
Thomas: Yeah, most of your listeners, I'm guessing, are knowledge workers, which means that the outputs of their job are decisions, communication, information, all things that rely on the tool that they bring to work everyday: their brain. If you are a knowledge worker, then your brain is the tool of your job.
Two things matter to your output. Not only the physical functioning of the organ, like does it have enough glucose to power you through the day? Did you get enough sleep? Are all the neurons firing properly? But also, your attitudes, your feelings, your emotions, all of those things are going to affect your output as well.
Time management is about making the best use of your resources. Your most important resources are not time or money, they are your body and your mind. And so, one specific thing that you could do, though, is to take time off. Like, truly, truly off. Every single day. And on the weekends or a couple of days a week, whatever your schedule is, but time when you are truly away, disconnected. You can't get a fresh perspective on something that you never step away from.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.