If someone walked up to you in the corridor at work and asked you a question, would you ever think of turning away and not answering them, basically ignoring them and their question? If someone phoned you and you picked up the phone to hear their voice, would you ever think of hanging up the phone without responding? Of course not and yet that is what is happening all the time with email. Countless emails are being sent within and between organizations that are valid emails with valid questions requiring a response and yet people are somehow just ignoring those emails. Whether it is that the individuals are overloaded and can’t just get to their email or they are being just plain rude is unknown. I worked with an organization however where individuals from all levels of the organization regularly ignored emails, not responding or even acknowledging receipt. For people who are efficient with email and are working to accomplish some project, having someone not respond in a reasonable time is a severe problem. It means that the email has to be sent again or a phone call made or a visit made to that person. What would have been a one minute job for the recipient to reply, is now a half hour job to follow up several times and finally find the person to get an answer.
For some reason, email is seen as an anonymous tool that does not require the everyday niceties of work behavior. Just as a person in traffic is anonymous and can cut into a line with impunity, so to can someone hide behind email, ignoring requests and pretending that the act of doing so is not downright rude behavior.
The expression “Good Enough, Move On” has been adopted as an excellent catch phrase. Michael Caron explains what it means to him in this video blog.
Just as with contacting people at home at night, there used to be a rule against contacting people except in cases of dire emergency, when they were on vacation. This might have stemmed from the difficulty of actually contacting people when they were away from the office and home but more than this, it was a matter of respect for the employee that you didn’t bother people when they were on vacation. This is just common sense in that people won’t bother others as they themselves don’t want to be bothered. That rule is completely out the window now. While people are not sending emails deliberately to absent employees, people are answering them nonetheless.
In the last week I have spoken with maybe half a dozen people about their email habits while on vacation. Each and every one of them has been keeping an eye out for email while on vacation. This is not so much a matter of having to answer them all but as a means of protection for when returning to work. Each of these people agreed that is was easier to spend an hour or so a day monitoring email and answering certain ones than it was in being swamped when getting back to work.
Another factor at work here is the ubiquitous BlackBerry and IPhone. In years past, before the advent of the smart phone, it was possible to separate work from home because your email was separated from your phone. With the introduction of merged devices, having one means having the other. Typically, something like a Blackberry is used for work email as well as home email. The device is also the user’s cell phone and is used for both personal and work related calls. Having two devises, one for work and the other for home is just not cost effective so the merger of work and home on the one device means that you can never leave work as at the same time, you would be leaving all of your personal traffic behind as well.
Anne Avery has a perspective on what could be a manager’s biggest potential mistake.
If you were a manager 30 years ago, you would never ever think of calling an employee about a work issue on the telephone at night. In fact, in all of my working life, I can’t remember ever getting a phone call from a co-worker about work, in the evening. It was one of the unwritten rules that you just didn’t call someone at night at home about a work issue unless it was a dire emergency. Proper work etiquette called for you to wait until the morning to talk to someone about the issue. Now there were a number of reasons for this. First, it was unlikely that anything work related would arise in the evening in any case unless you were in a 24 hour manufacturing environment. With nothing happening at work, there was usually no need to call someone. Secondly, it was just rude to call someone at home when the issue could easily be resolved first thing in the morning. With slower cycle times, waiting a few hours to get something solved was not a big issue.
While we would probably be hesitant to telephone someone at home today about a work issue, that inhibition to contact someone does not extend to email. For some reason, the very same people who would not think it appropriate to phone someone in the evening or on weekends would think it perfectly acceptable to email them at any time of the day or night. In a conversation with a friend of mine recently, he relayed a story about sending an email on the weekend. Being from the old school, he does not typically send emails on the weekend but he thought of something and sent a quick message, intending the recipient to see it and deal with it on Monday morning. He was shocked and dismayed to see a response to that email within half an hour on a Sunday. Owning a company and being a firm believer in the social contract between an employer and employee he felt guilty about impinging on his employee’s time in this way. Unfortunately, there are very few people left who follow this old social contract and who do not contact co-workers late at night and on the weekend.
It may be the indirect nature of email that allows people to think that they are not bothering someone when they send an email at 10:00 pm. After all it is up to the recipient whether or not they wish to answer. In this way, it is the fault of the recipient if they answer and there has been no breakage of the social contract. Unfortunately this doesn’t work as it is human nature to keep on the boss’s good side. Knowing that your boss sends email at late hours is enough for people to keep tuned in to email just in case there is something form the boss. Since everyone wants to look good in their boss’s eye then answering that email immediately makes someone look good and we then have a new culture of endless email.
In this blog, James Standen explains the perils of over-planning.
In general, 30 years ago the concept of working long hours was something that was ordinary and part of the general business environment. There were periods of time where people were needed to put in extra long hours to get something done and if you were a salaried employee, it was a given that you would put in those hours to get the job done. If you didn’t put in the hours, you were not seen as a team player and it was unlikely that you would be getting promoted very fast unless your other contributions far outweighed your lack of extra effort. While there were periods of hard work though, it was generally understood that these would not last forever, that there would be periods of hard work and then there would be slack periods where no extra work was required and where in fact you could go home early. Thus the social contract with work was that while longer hours were required form time to time, on balance, there would be a period of shorter hours to compensate.
The concept of working longer hours has certainly survived the transition to a knowledge economy but the concept of compensatory shorter working hours has not made the transition. Not only has the working week been extended and the number of working hours increased but the ongoing pressure has not abated. There is no longer a slower time of year such as the summer where managers can breathe. This period is instead used to complete all of the projects that could not be completed during busier times. Work has shifted into periods such as the summer to compensate for times that it is just not possible to get everything done. As a result, there are no shorter hours anymore to make up for the longer hours required form time to time.
Listen to Joanne Thomsen as she explains what it takes to be a great manager.
Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that U.S. corporate hierarchies have become flatter over the past two decades. Not only have CEOs been increasing the number of their direct reports but the number of middle managers has been declining.
“The number of managers in a company who report directly to the CEO has increased from an average of four in 1986 to an average of seven today. Rajan and Wulf concentrate on divisional managers — the lowest management rank with profit center responsibility and the position most consistently defined in the survey — and find that the number of division heads who report directly to the CEO has increased by 300 percent. The number of levels in the management hierarchy between division heads and CEOS has declined by 25 percent.” (National Bureau of Economic Research)
This flattening of the organization and increase in the number of direct reports has also added to the workload of the typical manager. Globalization and telecommuting has made it possible for these direct reports to be anywhere. Now a people manager not only has to cope with having more direct reports but he or she has a much more difficult job managing those people when they are removed form daily physical contact. The same problem holds true for other managers such as project and product managers.
Lea Cameron went from working with small organizations to working at McGill University. In this video blog she discusses the implications of working with diverse teams.