If you’re an entrepreneur with people who are working for you from home, you have a unique set of challenges. Whether they were always intended to work from somewhere different than you, or it happened because of COVID-19 and you can’t wait to get them back in the office, you’re probably facing a problem you never expected. Your people are likely working way too long.
Wait. What? How can that be a problem? As long as they are getting paid what they agreed to, and getting the work done, is it a bad thing that they’re putting in more hours than expected, and that you’re getting extra effort from them? It might be.
When people all worked in the office together, there was a structure to the day. It began and ended at agreed-upon times, and both you and the employee knew that what happened between start time and quitting time belonged to the employer. Before and after was their time to spend with their family or however they wished. You were paying for “work time.”
But with the advent of work from home, and the technology that enabled it, a new problem arose. People began answering emails and texts before they were out of bed in the morning. Running to Target? They have their phone with them and can answer that panicky email in the checkout line. Get a late-night voicemail from the boss? A lot of business is getting done on the sidelines of children’s soccer games when people should be cheering their kids on. Why not do that task before bed so it’s in your inbox in the morning?
While there’s nothing wrong with people demonstrating engagement and giving you a little extra effort on occasion, this behavior is not sustainable in the long run. Here are some of the things that might be going on without you even being aware of it.
People are working out of fear of losing their job. Instead of working because they enjoy it or are positively motivated, they might be terrified that since you can’t see them working all day, if they don’t respond at any time of the night or day you will think they aren’t working. People want you to see that they are working when you’re not watching.
They don’t want to let you or their teammates down. No one wants to be seen as the weak link in the chain. If everyone else is answering emails after hours, how will it look if Bob says he’ll get to it in the morning, because that’s family time?
Working from home and achieving work-life balance is largely a new phenomenon to most people. Especially here in North America, we don’t guard our personal time all that well. Even in the office there is a lot of personal and optional time off that never gets claimed. Most people have difficulty striking the balance between work and their personal life. That’s made more complicated when there are “flexible” work arrangements. You might assume people can make good choices about when to get their work done, but you’re likely making a bad assumption.
As the leader, you set the example. They take their cues from you. If you are sending text messages at 5 am and answering emails at 10 pm, the unspoken message is that they are expected to do the same. You might not have those expectations, but by your behavior you’re sending a mixed message. Most people will default to what they think will make their job secure and make you, as their manager, happy.
In the short term, this is great. People are motivated, and provide value for what you pay them. There are times, if you have a cyclical business, it might be a reasonable expectation (think tax time if you’re an accounting firm.)
But if people work longer hours than ever before for the same money, can’t separate their work from their personal lives, and feel like they are giving more than they’re getting from their job, it can lead to big problems.
Burnout among remote employees is not uncommon. Performance suffers, or turnover rises as people look elsewhere.
Yes, these are decisions they make, but what’s your job as the leader? There are two things you can do.
Have honest conversations about expectations on both sides. Do they know that just because you email late at night you don’t expect them to answer right away? If they work better at night, they can take that time during the day to play with their kids or go to the gym. Don’t assume people can manage their time without help. It also means that you should coach them on their behavior. If they’re obviously working when they shouldn’t be, acknowledge that. When you send emails, put parameters around when they should get back to you so they don’t assume everything is an emergency.
Model the behavior yourself. People will take their cues not only from what you tell them but what you do. Are you taking time for yourself and your family? Do you shut down at night? The single best way to help your team respect their personal time is to do the same.
Working from home is changing the way entrepreneurs manage their teams and get work done. We need to be aware of people’s desire to be good teammates while helping them balance work and their personal lives, or there are long-term costs we’ll have to face.
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