Chances are you’ll receive a new email, text, or instant message before you’ve finished reading this article. Your phone will buzz or your computer will ding or your watch will vibrate. Probably all three. Will you check your email or stick with this article?
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In our work coaching thousands of business owners, we’ve found that companies of every size and across every vertical are succumbing to what we call an “Always On” culture. Employees and business owners alike have become beholden to their notification centers. Even when the office lights go off, owners and employees will stay on: email, text, Slack — whatever the medium of choice.
Not only is this culture inefficient, with people spending three to five night-and-weekend hours per week on time-wasting email and messaging, but it also breeds more insidious problems, like higher rates of employee turnover, burn out, and disengagement. Employees’ families develop resentment and pass that resentment on to the employees. And if your employees are on all the time, then they’re going to share that burden with your vendors and other stakeholders.
No business owner wants this for their staff. We want our employees to thrive, to love their work, and to engage with it enthusiastically. And most business owners don’t mean to create an Always On culture in the first place. It just seems to happen. I discovered how during a merger about ten years ago.
At the time, I didn’t appreciate the impact that disparities in company culture could have on the success of a merger. The woman who became my new business partner was bright, talented, and driven. But she also had a sense of anxiety about her and it defined her company’s culture. She would send out emails as late as one or even two in the morning. And the staff that had been with her since before the merger would be on email too, replying.
Without realizing it, my original team and I gradually found ourselves joining these late-night threads. Nobody explicitly asked us to. Our company’s policies hadn’t changed, but our company’s culture had.
I learned from that experience that, as business owners, we need to be careful about the unspoken messages we send our employees. When our two companies merged, my new partner’s late-night emails subtly communicated an expectation that all of us should be on email all day, every day.
I’ve since discovered that most business owners don’t intend for their late-night emails to define the company culture. One of our business coaching clients, Andrea, who manages sales of a retail product online and at 50 stores in the western third of the United States, told us that she only uses email during off hours for fear of missing something critical — an emergency with her Indian or Chinese suppliers, or perhaps an urgent message that, if left unattended, could lose her a major account.
But when I asked her how many of her incoming emails meet this sort of mission-critical standard, she said it was about one email out of every five thousand. That’s .0002 percent of all emails. When I pointed out to her that she was Always On, answering emails on nights and weekends, injuring her relationships with her employees, her vendors, her family, and herself, all for fear of missing out on that one email in five thousand, she realized that she needed to make a change.
So I’d encourage you to look at your own business — look at your messaging practices and your team’s. Are you and your staff Always On? And how is that affecting your business? Do you want to make a change?
If you want you and your employees to have the opportunity to turn off — if you want to reduce turnover and boost engagement — check out part two of this article where I’ll be sharing a simple four-step process to turning around your company culture so you and your team don’t have to always be “on”.
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