Wake-up Call: Being ‘always on’ hurts productivity

Working late: after-hours emails chip away at creativity, innovation and true productivity

Working late: after-hours emails chip away at creativity, innovation and true productivity


At about 11pm one night you realise there’s a key step your team needs to take on a current project. So you dash off an email to the team members while you’re thinking about it. No time like the present, right?

Wrong. As a productivity trainer specialising in attention management, I’ve seen over the past decade how after-hours emails speed up corporate cultures – and that, in turn, chips away at creativity, innovation and true productivity.

If this is a common behaviour for you, you’re missing the opportunity to get some distance from work – distance that’s critical to the fresh perspective you need as the leader. And, when the boss is working, the team feels like they should be working.

Think about the message you’d like to send. Do you intend for your staff to reply to you immediately? Or are you just sending the email because you’re thinking about it at the moment, and want to get it done before you forget?

If it’s the former, you’re intentionally chaining your employees to the office 24/7. If it’s the latter, you’re unintentionally chaining your employees to the office 24/7.

Being “always on” hurts results. When employees are constantly monitoring their email after work hours – due to a fear of missing something from you, or because they are addicted to their devices – they are missing out on essential down time that brains need.

Creativity, inspiration and motivation are your competitive advantage but they are also depletable resources that need to be recharged.

Incidentally, this is also true for you, so it’s worthwhile to examine your own communication habits.

Be clear about expectations for email and other communications, and set up policies to support a healthy culture that recognises and values single- tasking, focus and down time.

Also, take a hard look at the attitudes of leaders regarding an always-on work environment. The (often unconscious) belief that more work equals more success is difficult to overcome, but the truth is that this is neither beneficial nor sustainable.

A frantic environment that includes answering emails at all hours doesn’t make your staff more productive. It just makes them busy and distracted.

You base your staff-hiring decisions on their knowledge, experience and unique talents, not how many tasks they can seemingly do at once, or how many emails they can answer in a day.

So, demonstrate and encourage an environment where employees can actually apply that brain power in a meaningful way: Ditch the phrase “time management” for the more relevant “attention management,” and make training on this crucial skill part of your staff development plan. Refrain from after-hours communication. Model and discuss the benefits of presence, by putting away your devices when speaking with your staff, and implementing a “no device” policy in meetings to promote single- tasking and full engagement. Discourage an always-on environment of distraction that inhibits creative flow by emphasising the importance of focus, balancing an open floor plan with plenty of quiet spaces, and creating part-time remote work options for high concentration roles, tasks and projects.

These behaviours will contribute to a higher quality output from yourself and your staff, and a more productive corporate culture. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 

Maura Thomas is the author of Personal Productivity Secrets and the forthcoming Work Without Walls: an Executive’s Guide to Attention Management in the Age of Distraction.


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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