It’s 10 P.M., Do You Know Where Your Employees Are? 4 Steps to Set After-Hours Work Expectations

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The other day I sat with three senior leaders from three different industries. One was the CEO of an international PR and communications firm. One was a partner of a professional services firm, and the other the president of a national not-for-profit. As it often does, our discussion about work and life turned to technology. I asked them how they used their smartphones and laptops to stay connected to work after traditional business hours:

”I keep my phone on 24/7, but I don’t respond to everything, all the time.”–CEO of the PR and communications firm.

“I sometimes send emails at 4 a.m., and on the weekends just to get a jump-start on my day and week.”–president of the national not-for-profit.

“My phone goes in my briefcase when I get home and I don’t look at it again until the next morning.”–partner of a professional services firm.

Three leaders, with three very different uses of technology. So I asked them, “How many of you have sat down with all of your direct reports and explained how you prefer to connect with work, and specified what you expect of them?”

All three shook their heads and said some variation of the following statement, “No, I haven’t done that, but they all know that I don’t expect them to do what I do.” My response was, “I’ll bet that isn’t true,” and I shared what I see too often in many organizations:

Leaders fail to clarify their personal preferences for staying connected to work with technology, and don’t share their expectations of the responsiveness with their direct reports. This leads to misguided assumptions that can wreak havoc on the work/life balance of their employees. And most leaders have no idea any of this is happening.

Here’s my advice:

Recognize that you have to initiate the conversation with your direct reports. They won’t because they don’t want you to misinterpret their questions as, “I don’t want to work hard.” For example, I worked with a senior leader who always caught the 5:00 a.m. bus to the office. On his ride, he did all of his emails and was so pleased that his team were “morning people, too–they get right back to me!” Imagine his surprise when I told him, “Actually, many are setting alarms for 5 a.m. to be awake and reply to you.” “What?!” he responded, “Why didn’t they say anything?” To the person, they all told me they were afraid he would question their commitment if they did.

Decide what you really expect in terms of response and connection. Part of the problem is that leaders are so busy using technology to manage their own work/life balance that they haven’t thought about what they actually expect from their team. The leader who emailed from the bus at 5:00 a.m. told everyone that if he really needed them he’d call their mobile phones. If an email was priority, he’d identify it. Otherwise feel free to respond whenever they can.

Have a meeting, state the parameters clearly, and then be consistent. People watch the behavior of leaders like a hawk. If there’s even a whiff of inconsistency between what you told them and how you actually behave, they will go back to assuming they need to follow your technology schedule. So if you state, “You don’t need to respond to emails at night, I’ll call you if anything is urgent,” don’t penalize someone who missed an important issue because they didn’t answer an email, but were never called.

Finally, keep the lines of communication open and encourage ongoing clarification. Assumptions people make about their manager’s expectations are rarely accurate, especially when it comes to connection and access to work via technology. Set the record straight. It’s an easy way to offer your people more control and consistency over the way work fits into their lives–something we all need.

If you’re a manager, have you clarified your expectations of access and connectedness with your direct reports? If you haven’t, why not? If you did, what did you learn? What difference did it make?

(This post originally appeared in Fast Company)