As we return to many of our pre-pandemic social activities, I am fascinated by the behavior of our fellow humans. We can sit within inches of total strangers at a theater and never make eye contact. We stop talking when the house lights go down. When our seat neighbor stands up mid-performance, they don’t have to say a thing, we know that means they want to exit the row and we should stand to let them by. But how do you know all that? There’s no “how to behave at the theater” training course we all took. I don’t member any specific moment someone instructed me what to do in this situation. Yet, we learn these social expectations along the way of life, and even without years of practices during the pandemic, we still know what to do.
In some areas of our life, expectations are clearly stated – like at work. There are written expectations about attendance, drug use, harassment, cyber security, pay days, and building access. But other work expectations aren’t so clear, such as:
- When are responses to e-mails expected?
- How early or late can I schedule a meeting and expect that people will show up?
- Should I be responding to e-mail during vacation?
- And my favorite…If my boss e-mails me at night or on a Saturday morning, am I supposed to respond right away?
After working in tech, government, and aviation, I have yet to see these kinds of expectations stated in any policy manual. In fact, they are rarely even talked about. So how do we know the answers to those questions?
We listen for the whispers from bosses and peers. Like a short, casual comment that extols the virtues of the person who is so responsive, even on vacation. Or slightly sarcastic “what genius expected us to get to a good decision at 8am on a Monday?” Theses off-the-cuff statements can be stitched together to help us go from “I think this is what I’m supposed to do” to “I absolutely need to monitor emails when I’m off work and NOT schedule early morning meetings to progress in my job”.
But what if these whispers weren’t an accurate reflection of your leader’s intent?
Let’s take e-mail for example. Many company leaders are in meetings all day, and only reply to the most urgent of e-mails, and batch process the rest in the evenings. This means it’s likely you’re getting e-mail well after traditional work hours or on the weekends. The question we rarely ask is “do they expect a response now, or when I’m back at work?”
After speaking with a number of VPs, and company leaders, the majority of leaders across industries are using this quiet time in their personal lives to get their to-do’s done and do NOT expect an immediate response as it puts the ball back in their court after they just passed it. Yet, assuming all bosses don’t expect a response can be equally annoying to them or career limiting to you. So how do you know if staying plugged in is expected, appreciated, or not needed?
While the obvious answer is to ask your boss, it takes a sizable dose of courage to risk the question in a culture that appears to value late nights. What will they think if I ask about e-mail response time? Will it make me look stupid? Will they question my work ethic? That’s why it’s SO DARN EASY for high achievers to slip into a pattern of working always, because it rarely produces a negative responsive from anyone at work.
There’s a difference between working hard and working always.
Everything we ever wanted is on the other side of hard work. But working always ignores the life changing benefits of rest, the need for connection, the need for a life beyond the laptop. Abundance is ours when we battle for less. Less working late, less missed workouts, less processed food, less Netflix, less obligations, less missed dinners. If you really want to see your performance at work improve, you have to improve your human performance (fueled by sleep, hydration, eating well, and thinking well) – and that doesn’t happen in our inbox.
So instead of spending your time listening to whispered expectations that dictate how you should be working, invest that energy into working hard WITHIN the lines of your workday, producing the exceptional results that speak louder than the late night e-mail responses so you can focus on your health, wellness, family, and community that exist beyond those lines.
Last thing, if you’re a people leader – don’t leave your team wondering what’s expected at work – just tell them!
Not sure where to start? Try these these:
- I sometimes send e-mails after 5pm, but I don’t expect a response until sometime tomorrow. I will text you if something is urgent.
- I don’t expect you to work when you’re on PTO, I do expect that you brief me on what’s going on before you leave.
- I like to clear my inbox when flying because it helps me feel caught up before unplugging, but that doesn’t mean I expect the same from you when you travel.