Constant connectivity is a reality in today’s workplace. Professionals juggle some combination of laptops, cellphones, emails, publicly accessible personal calendars, and shared team calendars. All this connectivity enables a lot of communication. But enhanced workplace connectivity often creates a professional dilemma: How much time should I spend communicating vs working?
For example, the average middle-management employee at my last office receives about 100 emails a day, spends more than 6 hours in meetings either in person or over the phone, and provides senior leadership access to read their personal calendar. In addition to all this communication, managers still need to review actual work products. Every hour these managers decide whether to keep up with communication or get work done.
Eliminating the fundamental tradeoff is a common solution to this dilemma; multitask by communicating and getting work done at the same time. If you need to, simply add more time to the workday. Professionals who take this approach are often known to always be working (ABW). Folks who ABW strive to attend every meeting, respond to emails as close to real-time as possible, and quickly turn around work products. We have all attended a meeting where a coworker multitasks by trying to contribute while simultaneously communicating over email and reviewing a document. It may be the same coworker who sends emails at 3AM or turns a document in over the weekend. The basic philosophy of ABW is that you can always work more.
Professionals who ABW often experience short term success at the beginning of a job. They excel as the new guy while communication and work demands are low. They capitalize on slow workdays by attending every meeting and saying yes to an increasing volume of work. But professionals who ABW approach a tipping point as workload and communication demands rise. We have all experienced the phenomenon of a high performing coworker being placed on a project team just to have them underdeliver in a crucial moment. That’s the tipping point where the high performing ABW coworker goes from shining star to overextended and unreliable schmuck.
Let’s accept that ABW is probably not the best approach for most of us. Knowing we can’t simply eliminate the tradeoff ask yourself again, how much time should I spend communicating vs working? If you still can’t answer the question, then let’s try reframing it. Simplify by taking the notion of time completely out and ask, “Should I prioritize communication or work?”
Professionals who prioritize communication strive to respond to emails in real time, attend every meeting, and always answer the phone when it rings. Frequently they set projects aside in favor of meetings, phone calls, or that email sent to the whole office titled “PLEASE READ IMMEDIATELY”. Alternatively, professionals who prioritize their work over communication frequently spend time “heads down.” They focus on producing work, respond to only important emails, and generally take only urgent meetings.
Some roles benefit from prioritized communication or heads down production. But it can be taken too far. In each case professionals risk being reliable in only one facet of their jobs. You don’t want to be the responsive coworker who fails to get work done on time. You also don’t want to be the coworker who can’t be reached but turns work around quickly. Each of these coworkers take time management to the extreme. As a result, they become unreliable and difficult to work with.
Let’s accept that extreme approaches to prioritizing work or communication often fail. Now ask again, “Should I prioritize the communication or the work?” Since prioritization may not be the best approach we should reframe the question again. This time let’s take the notion of prioritization out and try asking, “What is the best way to manage my workload and workplace communication?”
Professionals who proactively answer this question every morning prime themselves for time management success. To answer the question, you must understand your current workload and communication occurring at your workplace. Start your day understanding the work on your plate, knowing due dates, and how much time it will take you to complete the work. Also know what key meetings will occur around the office and when they are scheduled. Finally, decide what conversations you need to participate in. Then proactively schedule your time.
Schedule “heads down” time needed to deliver work products on deadline. Identify meetings you will attend in person or over the phone. If you choose to participate in a conversation via email, then set aside time through the day to keep track of the thread. Finally, schedule time to keep up with your normal email workflow and return calls you may have missed while heads down or in meetings. Priorities will always compete for your attention through the day. But, if you already have a plan mapped out in your calendar it’s easy to adjust. For a successful day, just follow your plan.
So, ask yourself, “What is the best way to manage my workload and workplace communication?” Answering that question with a detailed plan at the beginning of every day optimally balances your time. A detailed plan eliminates the need to ask whether to prioritize work or communication in the moment. Over time you will become a more reliable coworker. Better still, you will avoid the ABW approach. Give it a shot and experience success for yourself.