So I have to take the stress and hard work out of the organization?
You don’t have to take it completely out. The data shows people can work 60 hours for a week, two weeks, six weeks – but they can’t work it forever. So the healthy model of work is a hill and valley model, where sometimes we are at peak performance, because a major project is due, so we go all out to get it completed. People can work six months of 60 hours, but the problem is when you have no valleys. And I would say many organizations have very few valleys, especially at the front-line manager and professional level, as they have taken out things that allowed people a little time for reflection and socializing.
What would I say to employers? Bring back secretaries. Bring back people to answer the phones, and do the administrative paperwork. Is it a good use of your managers’ and professional people’s talent to have them doing all their clerical work in addition to everything else? I don’t think so; I think it’s a false saving.
Your figures on e-mail use are astounding. What do we do?
We have to start having a dialogue on what is the appropriate use of this technology, and then we have to start calling people on their bad behaviour because it doesn’t have the positive impact that is often thought. From our research, for example, a boss who checks his BlackBerry while in a meeting or talking to a subordinate is not seen as important or overworked, but as someone who can’t get their act straight and who cares more about the unknown person at the other end of the device than the people who he or she is supposed to be managing.
Our data from other research shows that most individuals get this technology with the intention that they will separate work and family – they will not use it in family time. The 24 people in that longitudinal study all held good intentions at the start. But nine months later only four of them were actually successful at imposing limits. When we asked them why things changed, they told us it’s because of the constant pressure and expectation from their boss, colleagues, and clients that they will be always available. No dialogue was taking place with the boss, colleagues or clients on what reasonable expectations might be.
Employers are giving these devices out thinking they are getting better customer service and more work out of people. But we have to start thinking about what kind of work we are getting out of them. Our research indicates a lot of people are managing their life by managing their in-basket. Instead of considering how best to tackle the issue in an e-mail – instead of considering how to handle it in a different or better way – they are focused on who they can pass it on to so the item is no longer in their inbox. That’s not a good sign for Canadian organizations.
Is it also that the people at the top of organizations go through life without valleys and expect everyone else to?
The senior executives I have talked to are disingenuous. They say, “Just because I work long hours and on weekends doesn’t mean the people I report to must. It’s convenient for me to work on Sundays. I’m just cleaning up, and when I send messages they don’t need to respond.”
But when I talk to the people below them, they discount those comments. They say, “If my boss is on, I need to be on as well, because if I’m not and something slips through the cracks, I’m in trouble.” Leaders are sending notices of 8 a.m. Monday meetings on Sunday night at 11 p.m. Is that appropriate?
E-mail has allowed us to get sloppy in priority-setting and planning because we think we can handle everything through knee-jerk reactivity. Technology is a tool, and like any tool we have to discuss how to use it appropriately. But that’s not happening in many organizations.
Whose ideas and research do you turn to – who excites you?
He’s an oldie but goodie: Jeffrey Pfeffer. I had the opportunity to meet him the other day. He’s one of my idols. He was ahead of his time. His book The Knowing-Doing Gap came out years ago, but we’re still making the same mistake over and over again. E-mail is a good example: The gap between what we know and what we do leads to bad results. He has been writing about human capital for a long time; he got it a long time ago, but we have ignored him.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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