Why do we let technology take over our lives?
One of the hardest challenges to overcome as a distance worker is the feeling that you have to be available for work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A lot of people feel that way, so it's nothing new, but when you find yourself waking up a 3:00AM and answering emails because you can't sleep, maybe it's time to take some action.
When a company gives you a phone and a computer, some people in the company make the mistaken assumption that those devices have the right to invade every moment of your life. To be honest, if you your work and your devices have that much power, it may be time to rethink some of your boundaries.
Don't think, even for a minute, that I am immune to this kind of insidious takeover of my personal time. I'm not. In my own life, I had an extremely uncomfortable conversation with a previous boss who shout-spoke to me the following words: "Unless you are on vacation, you don't have time off! I expect you to be available!" While this was a blatant disregard of my boundaries, as well as violating a variety of labor laws, statements like these are made by bosses more than they should be, to both employees and distance leaders alike.
The expectation for distance workers is out there: always be available for work.
What makes these situations even more horrible is the fact that our team members may need us in a variety of time zones, work environments, and project situations. Whether you are working in the building next door or on another continent, the pressure to be responsive can really be overwhelming.
Here's another point to consider if you're a leader or have a leadership role: your team is watching how you address work-life balance issues. Andresson et al. (2012) found that demonstrating a healthy relationship with work sets the stage for a happier, more productive, and effective team. As a leader, you set the stage for how the rest of the team evaluates their time and effort, and will follow your lead in making decisions about balancing work and personal life. It doesn't matter whether your team works in a collocated environment or at a distance, either, confirmed by Korzynski (2013) and Morgan et al. (2014).
Before we get into strategies for improving your work-life balance as a distance team member, you need to take a bit of an inventory about your job. Are you in control of your time, or is it dictated by a system or expectations that were set for you? Is there an opportunity to make improvements? Will your work support you if you have an unreasonable boss?
If the answers to these questions lead you to believe that this situation will never change or your time is not your own, then you will have to decide whether or not the job is a good one for you.
However, if you can put some boundaries and processes in place to reclaim or improve the ration of work life to personal life, then here are some ideas that you can consider and implement as a distance worker.
What can you do to build up your distance worker work-life balance? Here are some tips:
- Make a plan. The trick with this first tip is to really think through when and how people need you the most.
- Build a system. You're a smart cookie, and you probably have an idea of the most common questions you get asked regularly. Collaborate with your team to develop a FAQ or a TQA (Team Questions and Answers) document to answer the questions you can anticipate. Go through your emails for the last six months to see if there are some commonalities, and spend some time training your team to check the document (and maybe add to it, too!) first before calling you during off hours.
- Build your staff. Is there someone on your team who would be able to cover you as a "first responder" of sorts if you are away? This is great work experience, but if you can share the responsibility for handling questions, you can collaborate to come up with unique solutions and team support strategies.
- Set boundaries that make sense. Only you can determine what appropriate boundaries should be for your work and personal time. Do you need to block off regular time during the week to work on data-intensive projects? Are there "office hours" that you can implement as the best time for team members to call you with non-urgent conversations? Are there signals (like "do not disturb" on your IM application) for your team to contact a delegated staff member on your team (see #3 above)? There are lots of ways to do this, but you can try out a few to figure out the best approach for you.
- Revisit and communicate the process periodically. This is important, because your particular situation may change over time, making previous decisions obsolete or ineffective. What may work in May may not work in June due to business cycles. Additionally, make sure you communicate with your team regularly about the process you choose.
The Results and Better Work-Life Balance
True story: A friend has a boss who has an aggressive temperament and who prides himself on always being "available." It's a chronic problem, in that he doesn't take any time for breaks during the day. While the job my friend does is stressful enough, there is no consideration given if the team members are at lunch, having dinner with friends, or (seriously, folks) using the bathroom. The boss has created an environment where personal time is not important, and it has led to a toxic work environment.
I could be preaching to the choir here, or I could be telling a story to indicate you are not alone. If you do not demonstrate a healthy work-life balance, you will be setting your team on a path that could lead to deeper, more systemic problems. Your team chooses their behavior patterns related to healthy work environments from you!
- What strategies do you use to foster a positive work-life balance?
- What does a healthy work-life balance look like to you?
- How do you know if you are addressing both personal and professional priorities successfully?
Want to know more about being visible in a virtual work environment? I can recommend the following book by David Clemons and Michael Kroth, especially chapters two and five. The following link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com.
Andresson, P., Konradt, U., & Neck, C. P. (2012). The relation between self-leadership and transformational leadership: Competing models and the moderating role of virtuality. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 19(1), 68-82. doi:10.1177/1548051811425047
Korzynski, P. (2013). Online social networks and leadership: Implications of a new online working environment for leadership. International Journal of Manpower, 34(8), 975-994. doi:10.1108/IJM-07-2013-0173
Morgan, L., Paucar-Caceres, A., & Wright, G. (2014). Leading effective global virtual teams: The consequences of methods of communication. Systemic Practice & Action Research, 27, 607-624. doi:10.1007/s11213-014-9315-2