Self-care won’t cure burnout at work (review of The Burnout Epidemic by Jennifer Moss)

Your team’s exhausted and burning out.

Because you’re a leader who cares, you’re ready to pick up the tab for lunch hour yoga classes, a mindfulness and resilience workshop and a meditation app. You’re also planning to invite everyone to skip work next Friday and spend the day at your place for a catered barbecue, pool party and an epic game of ultimate frisbee.

Hold that thought, and not just because forced fun is a slow death for introverts and co-workers should never see each other in swimwear.

Your self-care intentions are good but it won’t fix what ails your team.

“Burnout can’t be stretched out of people in yoga classes or sweated out of them at the gym,” says Jennifer Moss, journalist and author of The Burnout Epidemic.

“Burnout doesn’t care if they breathe better or deeper. And it most certainly isn’t prevented by suggesting that maybe if they just listened to the sound of rainfall for 30 seconds instead of 15. This is the psychology of leaders in denial.”

Burnout is a sign that something’s seriously wrong with your organization’s culture. Look for one or more of these six roots causes of burnout: imposed or self-inflicted chronic overwork, micromanaging with little to no autonomy, no meaningful rewards or recognition for a job well done, strained relationships with coworkers and supervisors, a real or perceived lack of fairness and a values mismatch between employees and employer.

“Burnout is a complex constellation of poor workplace practices and policies, antiquated institutional legacies, roles and personalities at higher risk, and systemic, societal issues that have been left unchanged, plaguing us for far too long,” says Moss. A focus on self-care solutions makes burnout a “me” rather than “we” problem and absolves leaders from taking responsibility to clean up poor organizational hygiene.

The real cure for burnout comes from tackling those six root causes. And how do you figure out which of these problems haunt your team? Ask them. Let them answer anonymously. Act on what you’re told  and then report back on what you’re doing to clean up your organizational hygiene.  

“Yes, we need to help our people develop the skills that support their mental health and happiness,” says Moss. “But, to battle burnout, we’re talking a different game. Though employees are ultimately responsible for their own happiness, it is our responsibility to provide the conditions that support, and not detract, from their happiness. Burnout occurs when those conditions fail.”

Pay particular attention to younger employees who are at the highest risk of burnout, says Moss. They tend to have less autonomy at work, lower seniority, greater financial pressures and deeper feelings of loneliness.

Address the root causes of burnout and you’ll earn your team’s trust and respect. They’ll know that you genuinely care. Your concern for their well-being won’t come across as lip service or a public relations exercise meant to impress the outside world and score best places to work awards and accolades.

And once you’ve cleaned up your organizational hygiene, that’s when you can revisit your well-intentioned self-care classes, workshops and apps.  Just continue holding off on that stress-inducing backyard pool party.  A Randstad USA survey found that 90 per cent of workers would rather get a bonus or extra vacation day than attend a company holiday party. A party where everyone’s wearing beachwear likely gets you to 100 per cent.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and calls Hamilton home.

How to save your reputation from the digital mob (review of Molly McPherson’s Indestructible)

You said or did something stupid.

And now you’re being called out on social media by the digital mob. Reporters, your employees and customers are watching from the sidelines.

What you do next will seal your fate. Do it wrong and you’ll get yourself cancelled. You may very well lose your job, your business and your reputation.

Now is not the time to throw yourself a pity party, run and hide or hope the mob gets bored and moves on to its next target.

“The online shunning is not random nor is it unfair,” says Molly McPherson, author of Indestructible and an expert in public relations and crisis response in the digital age.

“The people who are targeted for cancellation or the brands that find themselves in the public’s crosshairs are in that position for a reason.

“The outrage is typically not from the questionable act that took the notice of the public, but from an inadequate response to the questionable act. The blowback is caused by a collective repudiation of the response itself or the hubris behind it.”

Brace yourself for extinction-level blowback if you’re defiant, snarky, tone deaf or slow off the mark.

McPherson has a far better three-step response that can save your reputation.

Own it. Acknowledge and accept responsibility for what you’ve said or done. Be sincere, humble and show genuine remorse. “An apology is critical to rebuilding a reputation and shows respect to people impacted or victimized by an incident. Accepting responsibility may seem risky, but it’s far riskier from a reputational point of view to try and avoid it.”

Clarify it. Give background that puts what you said or did in context. Explain, but don’t try to excuse, yourself. Use your weekend words when explaining yourself. “Speak to your stakeholders in a language they understand. Speak clearly and as jargon-free as possible.”

Promise it. Put yourself on the path to redemption. Announce your plans, priorities and the changes to come. Take real steps to make amends. “It goes without saying that this is not the time for token efforts – you’ll need to show how serious you are about mending the situation if you expect your reputation to emerge intact without being cancelled.”

And if you do these three steps, you have a shot at winning it and not getting yourself cancelled.

McPherson sees the same mistake being repeated by leaders facing a digital revolt. “The most dangerous thing a leader can do the moment they hear of pushback from the public is dismissal. They dismiss the complaint. They dismiss the complainer. They dismiss the power of social media. I have never, ever worked on or have been aware of a situation in which such dismissal hasn’t hurt a business in the short or long term.”

So why are leaders so quick to dismiss and make things worse for themselves? The number one reason is fear, says McPherson. “Fear of consumers rising up against their leadership. Fear of social media. Fear of information taken out of context.”

There are also leaders who still believe everything is private unless and until they chose to release it. The game has changed, says McPherson. Not only do we want information, we expect it on demand. “Being told ‘no’ is an invitation to ask again and to ask even harder because the reluctance to share arouses suspicion.”

In a world where everything you say and do can and likely will be used against you on social media, McPherson says leaders now more than ever need to practice honesty, humility, genuineness, transparency, responsiveness, relevance and accountability “Leading with these core values will help you navigate the environment and digital landscape in ways that older, outdated paradigms will not.”

So if you find yourself being called out online, silence, denial, defiance and non-apologies are not winning strategies. McPherson will show you a far better way to avoid getting cancelled and come out of a crisis with your reputation intact.

This review ran in the July 17th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

The five-year plan for becoming an overnight success (review of Dorie Clark’s The Long Game)

Itching to ditch your day job for your dream job?

You’re not alone. Record numbers of workers are quitting in what’s being called The Great Resignation. The pandemic’s served up a wake-up call that’s reordered our priorities and left many of us wanting a different, better and more meaningful way to earn a living. Maybe you’re dreaming of writing a book, launching a business or going out on your own as a consultant or coach.

But what if you’re a little hazy on the details of your dream job, like what it is, how to get there and how long it’ll take to reinvent yourself.

Again, you’re not alone.

It’s easy to sail through life on autopilot, frenetically filling our days and years with busy work that keeps us distracted, makes us feel important but ultimately leaves us unfulfilled.

“So many of us today feel rushed, overwhelmed and perennially behind,” says Dorie Clark, author of The Long Game: How to be a Long-term Thinker in a Short-term World.

“We keep our heads down, always focused on the next thing. We’re stuck in permanent ‘execution mode’ without a moment to take stock or ask questions about what we really want from life.”

Here’s how to break out of execution mode and find your way to more meaningful work and a happier life.

Start by making tough choices. Decide what you won’t be good at. Learn to say no. Yes, people will be disappointed when you turn down their requests and pass on their offers and opportunities. But to be a strategic, long-term thinker, you need lots of what Clark calls white space.

“Being so busy may seem like the path to success – but without time to reflect, an ominous possibility looms: what if we’re optimizing for the wrong things? We need to give ourselves the opportunity to explore what a successful life means to us.”

Clark also recommends “optimizing for interesting” to find what’s most meaningful to you. What piques your curiosity? What are you already doing that you enjoy? Where are you volunteering your time and talent?

You’ll also need to get better at three types of networking so you have the right people connecting, coaching, advising and mentoring you along the way. There’s short-term networking when you need something fast like a job or a new client. “Do it sparingly and only with people you already have close relationships with,” says Clark.

Use long-term networking to connect with interesting people who you admire, respect and enjoy. “These people may be potentially helpful to you in the future, but in indeterminate ways.”

You should also build relationships with fascinating people in diverse fields through what Clark calls infinite horizon networking. “You’re building the connection out of pure interest in them as a person.”

And finally, keep the faith. It’ll take years to become an overnight success – Clark says five years is a realistic timeline. There’s no quick and easy pivot from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow. “Here’s the thing about playing the long game,” says Clark. “At times, it can be lonely, maddening, and unfulfilling. It’s worth it in the end. But in the moment, it often feels like a complete, humiliating waste of time.”

Strategic patience will get you through the inevitable false and slow starts, setbacks, rejections, failures, self-doubt and the second guessing from family and friends who can’t believe you quit your day job.

“In the short term, what gets you accolades – from family, from peers, from social media – is what’s visible: the stable job, the beach vacation, the nice new car. It’s easy to get swept along. No one ever gives you credit for doing what’s slow and hard and invisible.

“But we can’t just optimize for the short term and assume that will translate into long-term success. We have to be willing to do hard, laborious, ungratifying things today – the kind of things that make little sense in the short term – so we can enjoy exponential results in the future. With small, methodical steps, almost anything is attainable.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager in McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. This review first ran in the July 3 Hamilton Spectator.

Reclaiming your time and living a happier life (review of Time Smart)

Dreading the return of your daily commute? I’m not.

Before the pandemic, I walked to work through a residential neighborhood and sometimes a forest. It took 20 minutes.

That walk holds the record for longest commute of my career. Short and stress-free commutes is one of the best perks of working and living in a mid-size city.

Could I have made more money working out-of-town? Probably. Would longer commutes have been worth the bigger paycheques? No.

“Commutes suck,” says Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard University, behavioural scientist and author of Time Smart. “Mega-commuters burn weeks of their lives in high-stress, unhappy gridlock. Bad commutes are, generally speaking, the by-product of a disconnect between one’s desire for a certain type of work and one’s desire for a certain type of home.”

It’s also a reflection of how we value money more than time. While we can always make more money, we can’t make more time. Everyone’s days are numbered and many of us don’t fully appreciate how few we get.

“No matter our age, education or income, we share the same reality: none of us knows how much time we have left,” says Whillans.

“One day, time runs out and tomorrow never comes. This is one of the core discoveries I’ve made researching time and money: we don’t understand well that time is our most valuable resource and it is finite. People tend to focus too much on working and making money and not enough on having more and better time.

“Given how precious time is, we should put it first. But many of us focus on our careers, constantly giving up more of our time in exchange for more money or productivity.”

Whillans is on a mission to help us put time ahead of money. It starts by avoiding six common traps that leave us time poor.

There’s our constant connection to technology that interrupts and fragments our free time. We’re scrolling and swiping our way through life.

We’re obsessed with work and making money. “We are taught and (incorrectly) believe that money, not time, will bring greater happiness,” says Whillans. “Chasing professional success at all costs is a cause of, and not a solution to, our feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it.”

We’ve turned busyness into a status symbol that shapes our identity and defines our self-worth.

We’re quick to give up lots of time to save a little money.

We’re averse to idleness. Doing nothing makes us feel guilty and leaves us bored, restless and reaching for our phones.

And we’re overly optimistic about how much time we’ll have in the future. We say yes to any and all requests that fill our work and social calendars. “The cost of saying yes in the present is low (and it feels good to say yes to people) and the future seems like a place filled with open time – that is, until the future becomes the present and we often wish we could take back the things we said yes to.”

To avoid these traps, start by figuring out where your hours are going.

Think about what you enjoy doing and what gives you a sense of purpose. It’s probably not a two-hour daily commute.

Find small pockets of time each day to do more of what you enjoy.

Now think about what you don’t enjoy.

Spend less time doing what makes you miserable. Quit doing it altogether (drop out of meetings where you have no value to add) or pay someone to do it for you (housekeeping, mowing the lawn).

Block out the free hours you’ve found and funded and then enjoy it without guilt or interruption.

 “If something makes us happy or gives us purpose, we need to hold on to it,” says Whillans. “We need to do whatever we can to prioritize it, to care for it, and to not let distractions disconnect us from it. All of us are living lives that are slowly slipping away. In an era of constant distraction, without careful planning our seconds will pass easily and unhappily.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

The art of being indispensable at work with a post-pandemic caution (review)

There’s a right way and wrong ways to build relationships at work.

Playing politics and making it personal would be the wrong ways. These are your colleagues who try to win you over by tearing others down or who are forever lobbying for bigger budgets and more people with promises of returning favours. And then there are the coworkers who either make the rounds each day to say a superficial hello and shoot the breeze or who really want to be your best friend and genuinely believe we should be one big happy family at work.

The problem with these relationships is that they don’t hold up when times get tough and hard decisions must be made.

“Workplace politicking and personal rapport are not good business reasons for making decisions or taking actions in the workplace,” says Bruce Tulgan, author of The Art of Being Indispensable at Work. “They are complications at best and, at worst, can lead you to make the wrong decisions or take the wrong actions. In the real world, the best politics in the workplace – and the best way to protect personal relationships with coworkers – is to stay focused on the work.”

To build strong relationships, make yourself indispensable. Build a reputation for making smart decisions, doing important work very well and very fast and finishing what you start.

Tulgan’s studied “go-to” people for decades and has cracked their code. So what’s their secret? Serve others.

“Stop focusing on what other people can do for you and focus instead on what you can do for other people. Make yourself super valuable to others. The more value you add, the more truly invested others will become in your success.”

Go-to people are also big on maintaining what Tulgan calls vertical alignment. Stay perfectly in step with the priorities, ground rules and marching orders set by your boss. Respect the chain of command. “How you align yourself in terms of decision making and support – and with whom – is the first core mechanism of becoming indispensable at work. Get in the habit of going over your own head at every step and align with your boss through regular structured dialogue.”

A word of caution as we dig ourselves out from the pandemic and make the long slog back to business as usual. Learn when to say no, not yet and yes to all the urgent requests that’ll come your way.

“In the postpandemic era, the would-be go-to person is at greater risk than ever before of succumbing to overcommitment syndrome,” says Tulgan. “Fight it. If you try to do everything for everybody, you’ll end up doing nothing for anybody. Now more than ever, it will take extra savvy and skill to manage yourself, your many work relationships and all the competing demands on your time and talent.”

While avoiding overcommitment will be a constant challenge, the alternative – being notably dispensable – will be a far bigger and career-limiting problem.

This review first ran in the June 5 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

The case for building sparks & changing lives (review of Cumulative Impact by Mark Schaefer)

You’ve built a successful career, a thriving business and a good life for your family.

What’s left to build?

Sparks. Lots and lots of sparks for kids and grown-ups who are starting out, staring over and in need of a helping hand.

“A spark can be an open door, an open heart or guidance at the right moment in life,” says Mark Schaefer, social media marketing consultant and author of Cumulative Advantage.

Here’s what happened when kids at Banneker High School just south of Atlanta were showered with sparks.

It was a school where six out of 10 students didn’t graduate and 97 per cent lived in poverty. 

The school piloted a partnership with volunteers from Junior Achievement. Students tackled real-life business case challenges. Volunteers from the companies that sponsored the challenges mentored the kids. Teachers wove the challenges into their curriculum, linking what was taught at school with what was happening out in the world. Students then showed off their teamwork, leadership, creativity and problem-solving skills by pitching their solutions to their mentors.

By their senior year, students had completed 16 case challenges. They then took on capstone projects, including consulting assignments, field research and paid internships.

High school graduation and postsecondary participation rates soared. Absenteeism and disciplinary problems plummeted. And most important of all, 98 per cent of students said they were excited by their future prospects.

What caused the dramatic turnaround? “It wasn’t due to any windfall of money, buildings or new staff members,” says Schaefer. “This troubled school turned around because it had an enormous infusion of sparks created by everyday people that led to a redistribution of hope and esteem.” 

Building sparks ties into one of the five factors in Schaefer’s formula for setting success momentum in motion and gaining cumulative advantage. That advantage is how we improve our odds of getting heard, standing out and succeeding in a world where the big are getting bigger and the rich are getting richer at an accelerated clip. Just as there is cumulative advantage, there’s also cumulative disadvantage. Schaefer’s formula can close that gap.

His momentum-building formula starts with identifying an initial advantage, discovering a seam of timely opportunity, creating significant awareness through a “sonic boom” of promotion, reaching out and up and building sustained momentum through constancy of purpose and executing on a plan.

As others reach up and out, Schaefer says it’s important that we reach down and offer experiences, opportunities and connections as mentors. These are the sparks that can change lives.

Schaefer writes from personal experience. Years ago, he became a mentor to a seven-year-old boy. That child, one of seven siblings who was raised by a single grandmother, is now an elite athlete who’s off to university on a full scholarship.

“Don’t just lend a hand; be the hand and help those in this world who are being left behind,” say Schaefer. “Everything good and great starts with something small. What can you do to create sparks of momentum in your part of the world.

“We know that the momentum of cumulative advantage begins with a spark – that initial seed of potential. Maybe the world needs you and I to be in the business of providing sparks.”

This review first ran in the May 21st edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Dear leader: now’s a good time to dial down rather than ratchet up the anxiety levels at work (review of Anxiety at Work)

I worked for a leader who kept count of all the people he’d fired over the years.

It was a big number. And he’d say it out loud in front of employees.

Why he said it was a mystery. Were we supposed to be impressed? Intimidated? Grateful to still have a job? It left me feeling anxious. My anxiety ratcheted up with every email announcing the sudden departure of yet another co-worker.

And then it happened to a friend. We’d worked together for more than a decade. She’d been doing the work of three people and aced her last performance review. She’d provided outstanding support to a succession of senior executives and was proud and loyal to the organization. People in the office were stunned, sad or mad. I was all three.

No meeting was held the next morning to talk about what had happened. There was no acknowledgement that we were reeling. No reassurances were offered that our jobs were safe. When I saw the leader walk through the office with a big grin and some extra pep in his step, I knew it was time to move on. I wrote the email announcing my pursuit of other opportunities.

“While some leaders believe economic, job and competitive uncertainty and resulting stress will get their people fired up for a challenge, that’s simply not the case for a large portion of the workforce,” write Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, authors of Anxiety at Work.

“With so many employees experiencing heightened degrees of anxiety at work, leaders simply can’t afford to aggravate things further or leave team members on their own to either buck up, opt out or calm down.”

Anxiety can lead to apathy, burnout, self-doubt and imposter syndrome, workplace anger and a pile-up of sick days. We mentally and then physically check out. “Worry, stress and resulting anxiety at work can cause employees to lose focus and withdraw, working at reduced capacity and rebuffing attempts by fellow team members or managers to help.”

So what’s a leader to do? You don’t need to become a therapist, say the authors. Just convey that you genuinely care about the people you have the privilege to lead. Encourage your team to be open about their struggles, lend an ear and take small steps that will add up to less anxiety.

“Within our teams, we can go a long way to relieving tensions, providing support, inspiring enthusiasm and loyalty, and creating a safe place for people to spend their days,” say Gostick and Elton. “Having a healthy workplace is a goal we can all feel good about.”

To achieve that goal, help your team do better at dealing with uncertainty. Practice constant communication transparency so anxiety doesn’t fill your silence. Be direct. Communicate frequently and one-on-one. Make it okay not to have all the answers, loosen your grip, ensure everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them, keep people focused on what’s within their control, have a bias for action and offer constructive feedback.

Gostick and Elton also have strategies to help teams tackle work overload, avoid the anxiety-inducing trap of perfectionism, engage in healthy debate rather than conflict avoidance and build social bonds and a sense of camaraderie.

Leaders also have a key role to play as allies who help marginalized and anxious team members feel valued and accepted. “When managers create cultures where people feel comfortable being themselves, dramatic performance gains can be unlocked as everyone is able to focus all their attention on work.”

I’m fortunate to now work for a leader who’s never publicly or privately boasted about how many people she’s fired. What I hear instead is constant and genuine gratitude that matches to the magnitude of the job well done by her team. And I keep running into people she’s mentored over the years. It’s an equally big, and far more impressive, number.

This review first ran in the May 8th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Getting out from under the social media influence (review of Gabrielle Bluestone’s Hype)

Who needs a business plan when easy money can be made with a little social media savvy and a whole lot of chutzpah.

In our post-truth and lonely world, there’s no shortage of easy marks online for scammers, grifters and fraud artists to overpromise and then shamelessly underdeliver or deliver nothing at all.

Nothing is what thousands of partygoers got when they flew to the Bahamas for the Fyre Festival back in 2017. There was no Instagram-gold weekend with supermodels and celebrities on a private island. Instead, they wound up stranded in a gravel pit with nowhere to sleep, no shelter from the sun and nothing to eat but cheese slice sandwiches. Meanwhile, Fyre Media CEO Billy McFarland was just offshore on a borrowed yacht living his best life thanks to other people’s money.

“Like most people, my first glimpse of the Fyre Festival was on Instagram,” says journalist Gabrielle Bluestone, who broke the story about the festival’s implosion in real time while working at VICE. “The slick commercial venture exploded onto America’s social media feeds in December of 2016, as hundreds of verified influencers – blue-check Instagram celebrities with tens of millions of combined followers – started posting the same ambiguous burnt sienna square, suggesting their fans #joinme by purchasing tickets to the mysterious event.

“The festival organizers who had hired the internet stars to promote the event were promising ticket buyers ‘two transformative weekends’ of fabulous luxury on a private island formerly owned by Pablo Escobar, where they’d be flown in on private jets, pampered by a dedicated wellness team and nourished with meals designed by celebrity chef Stephen Starr.”

Along with scamming thousands of ticket buyers, McFarland defrauded investors of $27.4 million. He’d eventually be charged with wire fraud and sentenced to six years in federal prison.

In her book Hype, Bluestone also takes a critical look at Insta-famous influencers like Danielle Bernstein and Caroline Calloway who fuel the hype machine.

Bernstein is a 20-something fashion influencer and founder of WeWoreWhat, an Instagram page with more than 2.5 million followers. She gets $15,000 per post to flog brands on her site.

“In a sense, she’s the version of me that I (and many other millennial women) could be if I weren’t too lazy to work out regularly, if I had an unlimited clothing budget, fashion sense and a general lack of shame around dancing in public,” says Bluestone.

“Calloway was someone who was clearly determined to become famous, but her goals didn’t appear to extend all that far beyond her follower count.” She pitched a mini-version of the Fyre Festival, inviting her 800,000-plus followers to sign up for cross-country $165 writing workshops, with the added bonus of handwritten notes in personalized journals, home-cooked salads and wildflower gardens to take home, which Bluestone says is “Influencer-speak for a bouquet of flowers in a mason jar.”

The pandemic may be making us more immune to hype and helping us remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Attention-seeking celebrities and affirmation-needy influencers who lounged in their McMansions or jetted off to parties and island vacations while telling us that we’re #inthistogether have come under increasing fire for being tone-deaf and self-absorbed. Once-faithful fans and followers who’ve been laid off, let go and holed up in studio apartments are pushing back, prompting tearful sorry / not sorry apologies from misunderstood influencers who seem too sad to even get out of bed.

“If any good can even be said to come of something like this pandemic, I think it was that it stripped away a lot of our everyday artifices,” says Bluestone. “And it turned a lot of cynical forgone conclusions into open-ended questions. What do we really need to survive in this world? To thrive? What kind of legacy are we leaving behind? What truly matters when every day is an emergency? Unfortunately, the celebrities did not get the memo.”

This review first ran in the April 24 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton, Ontario and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

4 ways to send & receive far fewer emails (review of Cal Newport’s A World Without Email)

A world without email seems like an impossible, beautiful dream.

But a world with far fewer emails?

That’s doable and Cal Newport knows the way. The Georgetown University computer science professor has spent five years studying how email affects us at work.

To no one’s surprise, it’s not a pretty picture. Research shows email makes us less productive and more miserable. On average, we’re checking our inboxes every six minutes. It’s tough to get important work done when we’re constantly distracted and interrupted. Email is not a job but sending and receiving messages are eating up whatever time we have left between Zoom meetings.  

“We know email is a better way to deliver messages that the technologies it superseded: it’s universal, it’s fast, it’s essentially free,” says Newport, author of A World Without Email. “At the same time, however, we’re fed up with our inboxes, which seem to be as much a source of stress and overwork as they are a productivity boon. These dual reactions – admiration and detestation – are confusing and leave many knowledge workers in a state of frustrated resignation.”

Here are four ways to tame our inboxes and free up time to actually do our jobs.

Limit emails to five sentences or less. Stick to short questions, answers and updates. If you want a conversation, pick up the phone, go on Zoom or walk down the hall. “Always keeping emails short is a simple rule but the effect can be profound,” says Newport. “Once you no longer think of email as a general purpose tool for talking about anything at any time its stranglehold on your attention will diminish.”

Create shared email accounts for departments and projects rather than individual accounts for people. “By eliminating this connection between email and people, you will, with one grand gesture, destabilize everyone’s expectations about how communication should unfold, making it much easier for you to rebuild these expectations from scratch with a protocol that makes more sense.”

To eliminate all those “just checking in to see where we’re at” emails, hold 15-minute scrums with your team. Meet daily or every other day and have everyone answer three questions. What did I get done since our last meeting? Have I run into any obstacles? What will I do before our next scrum?

“These short meetings can significantly reduce ad hoc email or instant message interaction throughout the day, as everyone synchronizes during the regular gathering,” says Newport. “It is surprising how much overwhelming, attention-fracturing back-and-forth interaction can be compressed into a frequent schedule of very short check-ins.”

And finally, borrow from emergency rooms and introduce a tracking board. Put the board up on a wall or get an online version. Write tasks on cards, including who’s responsible for getting the job done. Then stack the cards under three columns: to do, doing and done. Hold regular meetings to review and update your tracking board. Digital task boards will let you store messages directly on the cards, eliminating the need for email.

“If you’re one of the many millions exhausted by your inbox, hopeful that there must be a better way to do good work in a culture currently obsessed by constant connectivity, then it’s time to open your eyes.” Newport shows us a world where we can curb constant digital distractions and regain the cognitive bandwidth to do important work by putting some thought into how we communicate with each other. “I’ve come to believe it’s not only possible, but actually inevitable and my goal with this book is to provide a blueprint for the coming revolution.”

Sign me up.

This review first ran in the April 10 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as the communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Serve up community in your post-pandemic lunch room (review of The Lonely Century)

Putting communal tables in your lunchroom may be your best post-pandemic recruitment and retention strategy.

To fill those tables, encourage everyone to break for lunch. Discourage us introverts from always eating “al desko.”  Introduce dig-in potlucks and occasionally splurge on ordering in a meal. Keep smartphones out of the lunchroom so we look up, look around and strike up conversations with our coworkers. And make cleaning the lunchroom a shared responsibility. If you’re the leader, volunteer for the first week of cleaning duty. 

“Eating together is one of the easiest ways of building a greater sense of community and team spirit in the workplace,” says Noreena Hertz, academic, thought leader and author of The Lonely Century. “So as companies seek to rebuild a sense of community and help their staff to reconnect after months of forced distancing, reinstituting a formal lunch break – ideally at a set time – and encouraging workers to eat together should form part of their strategy.”

This is especially important if you’re looking to hire and hold on to 20-somethings. Hertz says this demographic, despite all their friends and followers on social media, is among the loneliest in society and the group most craving connection and community. More than half of Gen Zs in the workforce report feeling emotionally distant from their colleagues.

The rest of us aren’t faring much better. Forty per cent of office workers worldwide say they feel lonely. In the US, nearly one in five people don’t have a single friend at work,

According to Hertz, there was a loneliness epidemic long before the pandemic hit. And there’s a good chance our social recession will continue when the pandemic’s behind us thanks to advances in technology.

Hertz isn’t optimistic the booming loneliness economy will save us. That economy includes everything from RentAFriend and increasingly lifelike social robots to mukbang – the practice of watching someone eat on-screen while you eat alone at home.

We’re also commercializing community, even though it’s something you make rather than buy or have done for you. Yet community’s increasingly packaged and sold like a product. “If you can’t pay enough, you are not invited in. There is a real danger that community becomes something increasingly accessible only to the privileged. That loneliness becomes a disease that only the wealthy have a chance to cure.”

Hertz recommends we reinvest in public spaces that bring everyone together while also rolling back taxes and offering incentives to pro-community enterprises, like neighbourhood bookstores and cafes that are getting pummeled by online retailers

We also need to reconnect capitalism with care and compassion, says Hertz. A self-obsessed and self-seeking form of hustle harder bootstrap capitalism has “normalized indifference, made a virtue out of selfishness and diminished the importance of compassion and care. Forty years of neoliberal capitalism has, at best, marginalized values such as solidarity, community, togetherness and kindness.”

So now’s a good time to add kindness to your organization’s list of core values. And during your communal lunches, take a few minutes to recognize and reward colleagues for their small, but hugely important, acts of community-building and loneliness-busting kindness.

In a post-pandemic world with rampant loneliness and isolation, it’ll be the friendly, kind and caring organizations that have a definite competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining good people.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.