“The thing that I don’t understand is what time I am allowed to go to bed.”
These were the words of a junior lawyer in a discussion around habitual out of hours emails amongst their team. Their manager liked to clear the decks in the evening after their young family were in bed. They had no understanding however of the impact that routinely firing out emails late into the night had on the dynamics of the team. A culture had grown where no one wanted to appear to be the one ‘slacking off’, discussions and decisions were being made late into evenings and as a result no one was really clocking off.
This scenario, though extreme, is sadly not unusual. Flexibility is now central to the working culture of many organisations, and employees have a wealth of digital tools enabling them to collaborate and communicate wherever and whenever. The ‘cost’ of flexibility is for many a blurring of boundaries of work and personal time. Digital presenteeism is rife, with employees feeling the pressure to be digitally available and responsive at all times. Many feel overwhelmed by multiple streams of workplace communication and an increase in back to back video meetings. Meaningful, restorative breaks seem fanciful to those employees who are struggling to work out when they can take a break to go to the toilet.
Little wonder work related stress and burnout is on the increase. The UK Governments HSE 2022 report found that 17 million working days are lost each year to work-related stress, depression and anxiety. This accounts for 55% of all ill health and is significantly above pre-pandemic rates.
A Team Digital Communications Charter
Shine Offline are committed to helping individuals, teams and businesses create healthier digital habits and better boundaries. For our own small team we have devised a Team Digital Communications Charter so that everyone is clear on what is expected when it comes to how and when we use our workplace digital technologies.
Creating a Team Digital Communications Charter will encourage and empower conscious, respectful and purposeful use of tech. Clear guidance and open communication ensures colleagues are clear on the expectations on them and the appropriate use of their digital tools.
We have put together a no-nonsense guide for your team or your business to get you started in setting up guidelines for the healthy collective use of technologies. Each business and team is different but we have shared Shine Offline’s commitments under each point and you can find it in full here.
1. Communications timing guidance
Deciding what are the standard working hours and requirements within the team will help everyone understand what is expected of them. It is especially important that leaders and managers not only model and communicate good digital behaviours in relation to their own out of hours digital communications but also pull up team members who do not adhere to this. If the nature of business necessitates 24/7 availability, an agreement and structure should be made to ensure everyone has the opportunity to switch off and recharge. Open conversations with clients and other external parties, ideally at the outset of relationships, will help establish these boundaries.
- Shine Offline work communications should be conducted between 08.30 and 18.00 BST
- Work communications refers to all internal and external email, phone use, video calls or any social engagement tools (e.g. LinkedIn)
- We value our work life balance and need for downtime and so commit to communication within these hours unless in exceptional circumstances (e.g. working collaboratively on deadline, arrangements made with individuals working in different time zones or genuine emergency)
- There is no expectation to check work communications outside of these times and replies should not been sent outside of these hours
- Any non-urgent communications created outside of these hours is scheduled to be delivered within working hours using tools such as ‘delay delivery’
- Work phones can and should be switched off outside of these hours
What if my team work across time zones?
If a team is globally dispersed, or working across multiple time zones, it is even more important that some guidance is put in place to help individuals understand the expectations on them to avoid burnout. Supporting and empowering individuals to manage their own schedules, but also being respectful of these differences for colleagues, will protect their wellbeing and quality of their work. Encouraging use of email signatures, batching communications and being sensitive to time zones when arranging meetings should all be considered in guidelines.
2. Appropriate use of communication tools
A clear understanding of what is the best communication channel for different types of contact, dependent on audience and context, will increase efficiency, cut down on repetition and reduce stress. Consideration should be given to the role of IT in not only providing the appropriate tools but ensuring that workers have the correct training to know both their correct use and full functionality. Shine Offline’s work with businesses has highlighted how few people understand some fairly simple functions within Outlook, Teams and video conferencing tools which can have a big impact on the way people work.
- Shine Offline adhere to the appropriate use of their communication channels – email, voice calls, WhatsApp and Zoom video communications.
- External email is used to communicate agreements, information and documents with clients, suppliers and other parties
- Email is used amongst the team for sharing information. Non time sensitive emails are batched with several items included in one email to avoid inbox overload
- Email is not appropriate for urgent communications – if something sent on email needs to be reviewed urgently this is followed up with a phone call
- Work phones supplied are used for work calls and communications inside working hours. Personal numbers can be used in an emergency if unable to reach via work phone
- There is no expectation that work apps are installed on personal phones
- WhatsApp is only used in an emergency if we need to communicate something important to a colleague
- Zoom is used for internal meetings where we need to discuss and share documents on screen
- Voice calls are greatly valued and team members should feel free to call colleagues if it is better to talk something through
- 1-2-1 meetings are often held over voice calls and walking meetings are encouraged where practical (together or remotely)
- An effort is made to meet face-to-face fairly regularly to build team relationships
What about my work Instant Messenger?
Instant messenger is frequently cited as being particularly distracting and a driver to anxiety with people feeling they should be available at all times. Understanding the impact that open Slack or Teams chat can have on colleagues and clear guidance on its role, use and expectation to be ‘on’, will mean this tool can be used in a more conscious way.
3. Healthy email management
Raising awareness of the most effective use of email to maximise collaboration and focus will help all staff and result in a healthier email culture at work. The vast majority of people work with their inboxes open all day which can both distract from focused work and increase stress.
- The Shine Offline team are encouraged to use inbox management tools (e.g. working offline, delaying delivery in Outlook)
- The team are encouraged to regularly go offline for focused, uninterrupted work (this could be 15 minutes or several hours dependent on circumstances). Allocated ‘offline’ focus time can be added to calendar
- The team are encouraged to set schedules to check and process emails during the working day
- For urgent matters a phone call is always the correct form of contact
- We are committed to using cc with consideration and awareness to reduce unnecessary email traffic
- Internal email traffic should be reduced by batching non time sensitive communication – rather than sending numerous emails throughout the day
- Interesting findings and research are saved for weekly team meeting unless time sensitive
What if an individual’s role means they need to be available at all times via email to clients or others?
We are regularly challenged by people who believe that it is not possible for them to close their inboxes or go offline at any point in the working day. But we all grab some lunch and go into meetings so why is it so hard to go off grid for any time at all? We would suggest to people that even 15 minutes of focused time will open their eyes to the benefits of working in an intentional, undistracted way and still allows timely responsiveness to incoming messages.
4. Making hybrid work
The hybrid workplace, combining time spent in the office and at home, presents a number of challenges. Creating good practices and expectations around how we communicate and collaborate through technology will make the transition easier for all.
- The Shine Offline team structure our workflow to maximise quality focused time when remote working and collaborative work when we are together in person
- We operate ‘remote-first’ meetings where if individuals cannot be physically present it is better that all participants attend remotely to avoid people feeling disengaged or excluded
Priorities and objectives are decided and clearly communicated through weekly team meetings and regular check-ins to avoid misunderstanding, duplication and to allow autonomy of work.
5. Purposeful meetings
Most people tell us that they have more meetings post pandemic. Many feel they attend unnecessary meetings and have back-to-back video calls in the working days. Meeting planners and invitees should consider who is really needed in the meeting and whether the invitee list would be the same if it were an in-room meeting. As well as ‘Zoom Fatigue’, having too many people attending meetings can lead to disengagement as participants multi-task in order to keep up, which is both ineffective and impacts morale and relationships.
- Shine Offline meetings have an agenda, a running time and are focused on outcomes
- Consideration should always be given on who to invite to meetings and to understand that they have a purpose and role in attending
- Team members can and should question whether attendance at any one meeting is the best use of their time if this is not clear
- Whether in room or virtual we aim to be fully present in meetings. Measures are taken to avoid digital distractions. Only necessary tech is present; inboxes are offline or closed; phones are on ‘do not disturb’.
- The team are knowledgeable about settings within video conferencing tools to help minimise ‘Zoom fatigue’
- Team members are encouraged to consider the best form of communication for meetings rather than defaulting to video (walking meetings/voice call/ will an email suffice)?
When working across time zones, wherever possible, keeping calls and video meetings to within 1-2 hours of standard business hours in a given time zone.
6. Breaks in the working day
Having sufficient breaks in the day is important for employees to decompress, consolidate thoughts and ensure they are able to work with focus and not burnout.
- The Shine Offline team are educated on the value of regular breaks for both wellbeing and productivity and are encouraged to build this into their working day
- We encourage the use of diarising, timers and alarms as reminders to ensure the team take breaks and understand the value of even 5 minute micro breaks especially busy times
- We avoid back to back meetings where possible and try not to schedule both internal and external meetings between 12.30-14.00 to allow for all parties to break for lunch
- We encourage each other to get outside every day and are mindful of what activities replenish us during breaks rather than always defaulting to news or social media updates
The nature of work means back-to-back calls are sometimes inevitable We have heard too many times about people working from home failing to see daylight or even break for lunch or to go to the toilet. If this is the reality in any team an introduction of 25 or 50 minute meetings can help. We have met managers who have blocked out a lunch hour for the entire team so no meetings can take place. This helps to remind everyone that this is vital for both wellbeing and to work at their best.
7. Annual leave
Clarity about expectations around employee contactability when on annual leave will ensure everyone gets the break they need, will encourage better planning and handovers and avoid a toxic always on culture where no one can step off the hamster wheel. Modelling good behaviours from the top is crucial here. The manager who ‘just checks in’ is not only impacting their own ability to rest and recharge but is setting an expectation for the team. A message, whether consciously or not, is also sent to their team that they are not trusted to man the ship.
- At Shine Offline it is expected that team members take a complete break from work communications when on leave with no access to email or other work tools
- Individuals organise, plan and handover their work in order for them to completely disengage whilst on holiday
- Out of office, with named contacts for absence on email and voicemail, should be set
- As part of a handover team members discuss what, if anything, constitutes an emergency situation when an individual may need to be contacted and how this should be done
8. Sick leave
Employees who are temporarily unwell should be able to take the time needed to rest and recover without feeling they must check in regularly on work. Any non-urgent communication should be avoided particularly in the case of work-related stress.
- At Shine Offline, in the event of a team member being unwell they should set an out of office or ask a colleague to set them an out of office and are not expected to check work communications
‘Shouldn’t I reply?’ – Importance of leaders walking the walk
Charter or no charter, the behaviour of team managers and leaders in being explicit about expectations, modelling good behaviour and gently pulling up where their people fall short is crucial to creating a healthy digital culture. In a session we ran for team leaders in a corporate firm one manager reflected how he had come to realise that by replying to communications that came in from a members of his team late at night he was actually reinforcing, even rewarding, behaviours that were contributing towards stress in his team.
If your business or your team would like help writing a Team Communications Charter, Shine Offline can help. Please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org