Do I always have to be available?

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As a manager, do I always have to be available? I think not. The new term for this is “open doors policy”. This open doors policy may have made sense when all these electronic means of communication and the home office did not yet exist or were still a long way off. Some people can’t even imagine it anymore. Executives used to either be in their own office, the door was closed. You never knew: Can I come in now or not? Or there was a “gatekeeper,” a personal assistant or secretary outside the door who guarded access to the boss. 

I’m not technophobic, but …

Those who know me, know that I am a gadget freak. I also like and use new technologies and I’m not against iMessage. I’m not against Slack. These are all tools that I use on a daily basis. 

It’s not the tool itself that’s the problem, it’s how you use it. Through the back door, people are trying to usurp me as a leader. Suddenly, everything is urgent. I have to respond immediately. If I don’t respond to the Slack right away, a message comes (ironically via Whatsapp), “Listen, I just slagged you off.” What does that mean? Someone wants to take control of me. He wants me to deal with his issues right now. He wants to tell me when to do what. I don’t like that.

If someone else decides what is urgent for me now, when I have to be available, I simply go crazy. There’s nothing worse than having ten people come in at the same time and say, “All this is urgent now, this is the focus you need to bring up now.” It just all comes crashing down on you. 

You can’t allow yourself to become completely other-directed!!!

The message you want to send to your co-workers as a leader is, “My door is always open to you. I will always find time for you. I as a leader will find time for you when you need it.” 

But that also means that just because I have an open door, you’re not going to tell me when to do what.

That wouldn’t be purposeful either. 

If you are constantly interrupted, you work inefficiently

Imagine three co-workers wanting something from you at the same time in the old world. So they rush in through the door at the same time, because you have an open doors policy, and start talking to you at the same time. 

That’s Slack. 

And what does that mean in terms of consequences? If you’re constantly being interrupted, you’re working completely inefficiently. Any developer will tell you that. That’s why it’s always so quiet in those development rooms where developers sit. That’s also the reason why they so rarely show up for meetings. Because they have to be able to work quietly for at least three or four hours a day.

It’s in your hands

That’s the good news. Unlike your co-workers or the clerk or whomever, you have it in your hands to insulate yourself from interruptions much more easily. You just have to want to and simply stop being available and responsive all the time. Just being able to leave you a message, whether it’s email, voicemail, or an assistant, is perfectly fine. 

I love email

I’ve really become a big fan of email over the past few years. 

That sounds a bit crazy, especially since I too have been told for 20 years that email is dead, something new is coming, be it Slack, WhatsApp, the chat function in teams, that will replace email. (It’s like the paperless office, which didn’t really work out either. At least in my office, there’s still a lot of paper; paper has increased rather than decreased in my perception).

So we exchange information via all kinds of channels, via cell phones and Slack and iMessage and such. No one needs e-mail anymore is the widespread view. That may be true, but it doesn’t necessarily help in everyday working life. Because this constant communication, always being available everywhere in real time via WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger, Direct Messenger, Skype, Teams, etc., is mega exhausting. It beeps and buzzes everywhere and you can’t concentrate for ten minutes. 4 x 15 minutes (because I’m constantly interrupted) is not a whole hour of work, but maybe a quarter of an hour, because you’re always being pulled out of your thoughts. 

Emails are a super efficient and unbelievably good means of communication and the solution for the above mentioned problem. You can usually assume that an email will be read within 24 hours and, in important cases, answered within those 24 hours. And if we are honest, most things that are requested are not a matter of life and death. It’s rarely about a heart transplant. There’s almost nothing that can’t wait 24 hours or even longer. 

I therefore let my colleagues know: 

“My preference is for you to send me an email. You can expect me to read it within 24 hours and then answer it. If you want it to go faster, you can also send me a WhatsApp or a Slack. Then I will try, depending on how busy I am, to answer them on the same day. That does not mean, if you write me at 18:00 o’clock a Slack, that I answer you then at 18:10. But if I get it in the morning, I’ll answer it in the evening. And if it’s really important, then call me. Call me, then I can still decide if I’m going to a meeting, if I’m going to answer it. I see your number. I know who you are. But don’t call me with larifari, or I’ll get uncomfortable: was this call necessary now? Did you have to get me out of here?” 

This is a learning process that you yourself, but also your co-workers, have to go through.

You have to understand:

  • How do you function?
  • How would you like to communicate?
  • How much information do you need? 

And then there’s the last option, if it doesn’t work by email and also not by WhatsApp and also a phone call is not enough. Then you can do it one-to-one or you might have to make a separate appointment.

One more hint: Very often you use the breaks, perhaps the joint lunch, to discuss such things. You can do that, but you shouldn’t. It is not a question of not being able to discuss business matters over lunch. But when it comes to important decisions, when it comes to valuable exchanges, it’s not appropriate to do that in what might be a noisy environment outside of the office or outside of a “protected” environment in a restaurant or in a coffee shop. The background noise is too loud, and the small talk of others easily distracts you. It’s not a suitable place.

We like to be interrupted

This may not apply to everyone, but even as managers we sometimes do work that we don’t particularly enjoy. Budget planning, some kind of preparation for the boss … If I’m interrupted, my computer goes “ping” or my cell phone buzzes, then this distraction comes in very handy. But it’s not particularly helpful, because I still have to get the work done. And every time I again satisfy the need to be distracted, it takes me even longer. Not a good idea. 

The best example is push notifications. Whenever you have any app on any website, it’s like, “Can the app send you messages?” No, no, no, no, just don’t!!! Don’t send messages!!! It has something to do with self-discipline. 

“May I interrupt …?!” 

The sentence alone is already too much, because then I have already been disturbed. 

Better is: Approach your co-workers. I spend (at least when we used to go to the office every day) a good hour or so every day marching through the offices and talking to one co-worker or another. My goal is to have talked to every co-worker once a month in a company of up to 200 employees. During these conversations, co-workers naturally drop a thing or two that I can pick up on, or we discuss something. If you then have to give further information, you can always say, “Great, send me an e-mail. Let’s talk about that separately sometime. On that note, I wish you the most trouble-free, intense, efficient workday possible!”

My recommendation

Of course, your office door is always open. After all, you need to know what’s going on. But you decide how far in the door you’ll go, and whether you’ll listen to it when you do. You also decide, by the way, whether someone can come into your empty office when you’re not there and put a report on your desk for you to read when you get back.

Other than that, don’t answer the phone, don’t edit emails, don’t go on Slack, don’t do WhatsApp if you want to work undisturbed, but try to channel that. Personally, I prefer to edit my messages in the morning. Then the pressure is off my shoulders. I go through all the emails from yesterday, answer the ones that need to be answered immediately, postpone the others until the evening and that’s it. That way, I have peace of mind throughout the day. My co-workers, my colleagues know that and everyone can work efficiently. 

And if it’s really important, calling and talking about it is still the best thing. But it should be really important. So you don’t always have to be available.

Foto iStock

About the coach​

Kai Boyd has been a leader, trainer and facilitator since 1989. He supports leaders and their teams to work together effectively, trustfully and with ease. This involves each and everyone – in their respective roles and as people. Tailor-made formats and genuine attention enable potential to unfold and synergies to emerge.

The graduate industrial engineer, managing director and former management consultant knows the requirements of his clients from many perspectives. He works systemically, strength- and solution-oriented. Leading international teams as well as work and academic programs in the USA and the UK enable him to always contribute the international perspective.

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