Saturday, March 18, 2017

Some thoughts on working well (following two weeks in a health retreat)

Most of us will be living and working longer than the generation before us. As we enter our 40s and 50s we can see a hefty chunk of our working lives still in front of us.

Just over a week ago I finished a two week health retreat. Days filled with yoga, mindfulness, meditation, exercise, healthy eating, and treatments. Two weeks without a beer or glass of wine. More significantly perhaps, two weeks without looking at a single work email.

I was one of scores of people at the retreat across the private, public and the voluntary sectors investing holiday time in their physical and emotional well being because day to day life is too busy to do so in ways we might hope or intend. Whilst of course the detail is different across different sectors when we talked many of the themes are the same;

  1. A relentless email inbox: inboxes that flow and flow, and are often a large part other people's agenda not yours, hard to stay on top of and quite a lot of being cc'd to cover people's arses. With that inbox comes an (often self imposed) expectation that you will return emails within the day and be available and responsive in the evenings and at the weekend.
  2. A lack of time to think properly: time to think is crucial for making good decisions and yet schedules often mean we don't get time to think about the things that are important, only the things that are urgent (often driven by the expectation that you will respond to above emails immediately)
  3. Out of hours events: meetings, functions and launches over breakfast and dinner that mean the working day extends and as such the gym, hobbies, study or time with friends or partners are to often second fiddle to work.
  4. Unnecessary travel: lots of travelling when sometimes tele or video conferencing will be as effective.
  5. Unhealthy food: catered breakfasts, lunches and dinners all of which could be healthier.

This is the sixth or seventh time I have been to this particular place. Each time we come away feeling amazing both physically and mentally. Each time it gets me thinking and talking about the way we work. I have never made the time or decided to write about it before. However I see more and more of my friends and colleagues describing stress, burn out and feeling less effective and it got me thinking again about the sector I work in - the civil society sector - and our working practises and cultures.

As Leaders of these organisations we must think seriously about what needs to change if we are to work and live healthy, balanced lives and to be at the top of our game so we can make the social impact we want to. Some of this may or may not be particularly true for those of us working in London, but wherever we live we all have a responsibility to help ourselves and our teams be the best they can be at work and to create balance in their lives.

So what can we do? Many of us are taking actions in our organisations already. I would be interested in ideas and thoughts about what we can do both individually and collaboratively across the sector but my starter for ten;

  1. Change email cultures: don't send more emails than we need to. Pick up the phone instead. Stop cc'ing people in who don't need to be, don't respond to cc emails unless you have to.  Give permission for people to only look at emails intermittently rather than have them on constantly. Turn ours off when we can in the evenings, weekends and on holidays. Have a moratorium on emails in the office for a morning from time to time. And perhaps the biggest cultural change for some of us is just accept that is is ok not to answer all emails, particularly those that are not relevant - it does not make us rude or incompetent.
  2. Think differently about thinking: I did some really good thinking whilst swimming and running on holiday. If people do their best thinking away from their desk then we have to build cultures of trust so they can do that thinking away from their desk. We can change the way people spend their time to think. Sensible leaders believe that getting the job done is more important than sitting at our desks, and we need to trust ourselves and others to find the best way to think and get results. Phones, lap tops and iPads are a distraction to good quality conversation and thinking. Which meetings do we just have to ban them from?
  3. Out of hours events and launches: do we really need as many events and launches? Having now trawled through the 100s of emails I received during my holiday I have invites to be at an evening function almost every day of the week between now and the end of June. Some events may not need to be held at all in my view. Those that are important should wherever possible be within the working day. For our health, our hobbies, our friendships, relationships and our children. The number of sector wide events is unlikely to reduce in a hurry so we can all make some boundaries and rules for yourselves and help your teams do the same.
  4. Reduce travel as much as possible and use IT - most of us travel more than we need to? How can we use advances in IT to our benefit to drive change in our organisational cultures so we travel as we need to, meaning we are away from home less (good for our health, our hobbies, our relationships, our children), good for the environment, good for our bottom line and more accessible for people with disabilities.
  5. Explore healthier food options - quite simply there are healthier options than sandwiches and crisps. Just adding a box of fruit doesn't make it a healthy lunch.
On their own these all seem like fairly simple and obvious changes we can and are making within our organisations, but cultures run deep; the out of hours events culture in civil society sector in particular is a deep seated one. I would be interested in whether this strikes a chord with others, and ideas you have, steps you have already taken or that could be taken to help us live our long (working) lives in healthy and productive ways.

I haven't talked about social media and working practices at all in this blog, an issue for another day.