It sounds great when the manager says that his door is always open for his employees. However, if he truly enacts this permanent availability, he will be struggling with constant interruption and disruption to his work.
Inefficient work and high levels of stress are the result. How can you as an executive be reachable at all times, but not always available to talk?
Executives from midsized companies make a point of being constantly accessible to their employees. This is a finding of a current poll performed by Commerzbank, under the heading “This is how German midsized companies lead”. For 97% of the 4,000 polled individuals, the door to their office is always open to their employees. The executive is always available and reachable at any time. This sounds very employee oriented – but is fraught with pitfalls.
Many executives work 10 to 12 hours a day, are typically also professionally wrapped up on the weekend, and still have the feeling that they are not getting their work done. They know that they must work efficiently and effectively, but at the same time feel obligated to be accessible at any time.
Inefficiency and stress
To be constantly available means to frequently interrupt one’s own activity – for instance because an employee calls. He is in urgent need of a decision. Someone else steps into the office to get a quick signature. This will take no time at all. Usually these are just brief distractions, but each disruption requires you to interrupt your workflow. Once you resume your prior activity, you will need several minutes until you are able to continue working where you left off in a focused manner. You need time to reestablish your thought process on the previous work. This piecemeal work process is therefore highly inefficient and full of stress. Also, the frequency of mistakes will increase, the more frequently one is torn away from focused work.
Investigations have shown that the average office worker has eleven minutes at his disposal during which he can focus on a task without interruption. It appears that many managers have even less time during which they can address an issue without interruptions. But this is not how it has to be. In contrast to office staff, you as an executive control this, and can shut out most interruptions. But you must want this. You would then also not be constantly available and accessible. This is also not necessary. It is completely sufficient if you are constantly reachable – and you are reachable when a message can be left for you at any time, be it by e-mail in your inbox, or with your office assistant. Whoever has reached you will get a response as soon as you are available again.
A minimum of one hour per day for the important issues.
Close your office door at least once a day for one hour. Hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door. Do not allow yourself to be interrupted or distracted during this time by your mobile phone, e-mail or unexpected visitors. Use this time to work on your important tasks without interruptions and in a focused manner. You will be amazed how much you can get done when you are working on an issue without interruptions.
Some will think that this will not work. What happens when something urgent comes up? Keep in mind: Important matters are rarely urgent, and urgent matters are rarely truly important. Most urgent operational work should be performed by your employees on their own. You should focus on the important matters, and delegate the rest. Refrain from solving problems that should actually be solved by your employees.
Focus on the few, but substantive matters.
However, there are also managers who like to be interrupted. Some are comfortable in a role that makes them feel irreplaceable. Others appear to highly welcome an excuse for themselves to delay dealing with unpleasant and challenging tasks. Both behaviors are fraught with danger, since the executive does not address the truly important tasks.
You should therefore concentrate on a few, but substantive matters and avoid those that are superfluous. Check your e-mails no more than three times a day at fixed times. Have Outlook shut down for the rest of the time. This will keep you from being tempted to read e-mails that just came in. You can count on this: Should something really urgent come up, one of your employees or your office assistant will find you personally. Truly important questions that are also concurrently urgent are not sent by e-mail!
Lead by objectives and space
Many executives want to be constantly available because they like to mingle in the operational day-to-day business affairs. They even want to decide immaterial issues quickly and on their own. This is fundamentally incorrect. As an executive you should be addressing important issues such as strategy development, process improvements and leadership, and largely delegate operational tasks.
But delegating a task requires that you have a clear objective. You must communicate this to your employees, preferably by verbal and written means. Your objective describes the condition when the work is completed. The objective should be realistic, precise and easily understood. It should be measurable or at least formulated so clearly that anyone can see when the desired final product has been attained. Do not forget to specify a completion deadline for attaining the objective.
When you delegate, ensure that your employee has fully understood what target condition you want to achieve. Ask your employee whether he feels comfortable with the task, and will accept it. But then also give him the space to decide which actions to plan, in order to attain the objective. If he needs advice or help, you will be reachable for him – but not constantly accessible. Do not constantly check on the status, but only control whether the objective was attained by the deadline. Have confidence in your employee, and let him take ownership of his task.
Knowing what’s going on?
You are not required to be constantly accessible, but as an executive you should always know what is going on in your section. You must ensure that your employee’s criticism reaches you. Passive accessibility is not an adequate mechanism to do so. You are required to actively maintain contact with your employees on your own.
It is your duty as an executive to approach your employees, to give them feedback and also to find out what they are thinking about. Schedule routine walkabouts during which you engage your employees in conversation. It is of lesser importance if you are doing this once per week or once per month. But it is important that you do this regularly. You will be amazed how openly your employees will address you, and what you will find out when you approach them directly by taking the first step.
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