JOSH LEVINE, AUG 19, 2019: Work expands to fill time, which means the time you have to complete a task will be the time it takes. But what happens when the time you can work is all the time?
In the 90s, location and the “business day” were maligned as productivity inhibitors by some of the more forward-thinking tech-optimists. And, after years of unflagging effort, it feels like technology has finally breached the last of these naturally occurring work-life dams. Sure workers in many companies are no longer required to have their butts in that seat from nine until five now that they can choose where and when they work. But the problem with remote work is that too often it doesn’t feel like a choice.
Instead of the ultimate in work freedom, the removal of these barriers — the ones that helped us separate our working hours from the rest of our waking hours — has ushered in a new era of work: one where there’s always more to do and few reasons to stop. The email, messages, and texts racing to & from our iPhones have become the mini-tyrants ruling our day. And night. Emails, texts and slack messages don’t care if it’s 10 a.m. or 10 p.m. They don’t know if you are at your desk, or on vacation. And those little red dots screaming at you to open that app, almost seem designed to keep your mind at work. Without the naturally occurring forces of time and location present to slow or even halt the deluge of work, today’s workers will eventually drown. The magic efficiency of these ones and zeros racing to and from our iPhones have become the minute tyrants ruling our day. And unfortunately, our night.
To stop the ever-expanding workday from seeping into every nook of a workers’ life, we must take on the task of constructing our own barriers. Erecting self-imposed dividers, so when and where can become choices again. Who better to teach us how to take on this very modern predicament than the generation that was born into it.
Enter Gen Z
The leading edge of the next generation is just entering the workforce but they already have a knack for managing the push and pull of work and life. “[…]Generation Z see less segregation between work and life — they’re more about balancing that and making it seamless so work gets done anywhere, anytime; without sacrificing either one,” says Jim Link, chief human resources officer of Randstad U.S.A. Why? They have never known a world where the physical and the digital were separate. As a 2017 Accenture report on Gen Z points out “They have grown up in a connected world where humans and machines have coexisted for as long as they can remember.”
Where elder millennials, Gen Xers, and boomers have nostalgia for a time when leaving the office meant the end of the workday, Gen Z doesn’t even know what a workday is. Today’s youngest workers can teach the rest of us how to take back control by constructing our own work-life boundaries.
Set expectations early To be successful in any job it is critical to set the expectations about work boundaries early — ideally before accepting an offer. Even if you are typically timid about negotiations, you and your employer need to get clear about when you are and are not expected to be working. Ask about their expectations, and state any constraints you need to honor. It is completely reasonable to let your future employer know that you’d like (or need) to be available to pick up your kids at five on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or that after six you are off-duty until the next morning. Of course, there will always be exceptions, and demanding the time without exception is probably unrealistic. But a manager interested in starting off a working relationship on the right foot should be understanding. You might need to give here or there in exchange, but establishing open lines of communication about work-life boundaries from the get-go is good practice. -
WFH FTW Working from home is not a benefit everyone can take advantage of — it requires a level of maturity to self-manage well enough to be productive. Those lucky enough to have partial or complete ability to do so must get clear with managers and co-workers on expectations about boundaries up front and honor those boundaries continuously. Are you expected to be on video when remote meetings occur or is it acceptable to just call in? When is the earliest and latest you can attend a meeting? Make sure to be clear about when co-workers can expect you to be available, how you will let them know if you are not, and other norms. -
Set that status On location or off, setting your status is a great way to communicate what is happening without needing to respond to every message. “Away” is helpful, but the specificity of “at an appointment” or “with a client” is even better. Were you were taking some time away from work or putting in every ounce of energy at a presentation? With this context, co-workers can anticipate things like when you will return or what your headspace might be when you get back. -
Over-communicate about time off Putting in a little extra effort to tell co-workers, direct reports, and managers when to expect you to be available, and not, will pay off handsomely in less missed meetings, or frustrated phone calls. If you use shared calendars, or a scheduling tool, blocking out your time ahead of time can be really helpful. Don’t forget to put in the time for lunch. Don’t be afraid to use multiple tools and timings to let everyone know: An email ahead of some time off, like a weekly note to your team about when you’ll be in or out paired with a message the day of is a great way to make sure everyone is on the same page. -
ABR: Always be reminding Finally, make your regular schedule and habits visible to everyone. Remind everyone about your behavioral norms like how quickly people can expect you to respond. An email signature stating that the frequency with which you check email is totally reasonable. It could be that you only check at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. or do your best to respond by 48 hours. You don’t need to be out of the office to use that email auto-responder. If you are flooded by emails, increase the size of this boundary with a semi-permanent OOO note stating you are on a deadline or a big project and not checking email frequently this month.
Whatever work situation in which you may find yourself, the bottom line is that you can only count on yourself to set and maintain your boundaries in a world where working all the time is, unfortunately, becoming the norm.