Each month, Gazprom Energy talks to experienced, informed experts to get their insights and advice on a plethora of business-related topics. From how to scale up in times of change to working with external partners, we aim to help start-ups and fledgeling businesses add some value to their day-to-day activities.
In December's instalment, we're talking to General Manager of technology PR agency Ballou France, Cédric Voigt, about a topic that's affected many of us more than ever this year: maintaining a work-life balance.
From learning how to turn off at the end of the working day to methods you can use to boost productivity, Cédric offers up plenty of observations on the issue, and we hope you can find some useful, actionable ideas you can use yourself as we prepare to wrap up what's been a tough year for many.
As a business leader, do you find it difficult to turn off ‘work mode’? Is the temptation always there to check emails before bed and set tasks for the team before the working day begins? If so, how does this impact your work-life balance?
Technology means that personal and work-life boundaries are becoming blurred, inadvertently fostering an “always-on” culture. Given the restrictions of the pandemic, there was a danger that coronavirus would make us all feel as if we were living at work rather than working from home.
But this feeling can partly be avoided by building that time into your working day. For example, having a regular check-in time with the team so there’s no need to contact people out of hours. It’s a struggle, as there’s always the temptation to “just glance at my emails”, but the trick is to try and be disciplined.
Has your attitude to working hours and relaxing hours changed over your career? Has age and seniority affected your perspective at all?
I would say it probably has, yes. Being a working parent forces you to have a bit of perspective, definitely. In your twenties, you have loads to prove and there was almost a pride in demonstrating that you were working ridiculously early in the morning or late at night.
Seniority, obviously, allows you a bit more perspective, and I am very aware of the juniors at Ballou; I don’t want them to be infected with that “always-on” culture. I’d much rather they had an “always-well” culture; learning and working hard but doing so happily and well within their own stress limits.
What tips and tricks have you developed over the years to help maintain your own work-life balance and that of your team?
I try not to look at emails on holiday or just before bed. I try to avoid sending anything late at night or too early in the morning as that sends out a message to my team that “I’m working, you should be too” and that’s absolutely not the case.
I leave my phone downstairs at night to charge and have an old-fashioned alarm clock by my bed, so I’m not tempted to do that last-minute terror scroll that ensures a terrible night’s sleep! I’ve also found that it helps to set my own plan for the day, including downtime, before I turn my phone or laptop on.
This lets me feel in control of my own time and mood, so whatever’s in the news or my emails isn’t going to set the agenda for me.
Do you believe time management methods such as the Pomodoro Technique can help increase spells of productivity, reduce fatigue, and ultimately promote a healthy work-life balance?
I do, yes. I find that focus can be more difficult to achieve, especially during the pandemic, when we're bombarded with news updates and everything takes on an air of urgency. Also, if you have small children at home, then having your attention split between three different things at once is absolutely exhausting.
Pomodoro, or anything that allows you to keep your brain calm and focused in short bursts, works very well. One of the strange upsides of the pandemic is that we know now people do not need to be chained to their desks for eight hours a day to work effectively. If they need to go and do that yoga class that gets them back to their A-game, then do it.
Do you believe in completely turning off from work when you are on annual leave? Or do you still believe that dedicated professionals should make time in the day to analyse critical tasks?
It really depends on seniority. I think juniors should be able to switch off, forget about work, and recharge; if anything urgent happens they can be contacted by phone. There shouldn’t be a need for them to check their emails. As CEO it is a different matter; I usually glance at my emails twice a day to keep on top of things.
Do you strictly impose work-life balance standards on your team? Or do you allow them the discretion to make their own choices when it comes to working hours and the impact that can have?
I encourage them strongly to respect their own time. For me, it’s all about working out when you work best and what’s going to help you get there.
Staring at your screen at 2 pm rather than taking a revitalising walk that would actually make you more productive on your return makes no sense. It’s about trusting people that the work will get done and leaving them to get on with it.
Having said that, we do take various precautions to ensure that our teams get proper downtime – banning WhatsApp as a way of communicating with each other is one of them. It’s too informal and too easy to send someone a work message at 8.30 pm.
We do our best to encourage people to demarcate clear lines between work and home life, and we try to foster a culture where we would only contact each other outside core work hours in an emergency.
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If you were concerned that a member of your team was over-working to the point it was having a negative impact on them personally, how would you interject and help that individual?
In the first instance, I’d sit them down and have a chat about what the rest of us could take off their plate. There’s a relief in being listened to. I’d seek to establish that they were in a good place mentally, too, as serious overworking can sometimes mask something else.
I'd encourage them to use their annual leave to take a break. We have in the past threatened to cut people’s email off if they don’t go on holiday, but so far that hasn’t got past the threat stage!
With more people than ever working from home, how important is it to separate working hours from downtime? As a business leader, is it your role to enforce this separation?
It’s incredibly important. As an employer, embed it in your company policy that unless it is absolutely critical, no-one should be messaged after hours. Your managers should make it clear that they are not always “on” and don’t expect other people to be either.
This is vital because unless the lines of demarcation are clear, people can end up feeling guilty when they’re not with their family and guilty about work when they are. That works for no one.
Replying after hours gives the impression that the employee is expected to be working the same hours as you. It’s the responsibility of an employer to respect these boundaries.
Finally, are you satisfied with your own work-life balance? Or is it something you believe you need to address further in the future?
I think I could be a bit more structured about it. I am constantly on my phone during the day and I do need to be a bit stricter with myself, carving out online time and separating that from real-life time.
During the pandemic, work-life balance has felt more like a work-life battle, but as things settle down I think everyone will feel a little more positive about their work-life balance. It changes with whatever’s going on and we’re fortunate to have lots of new business coming in, so that’s obviously a very positive reason to be working hard.
Maintaining work inside a boundary is an ongoing process that requires a bit of reflection to notice new habits and check unhelpful behaviours.
If you’ve enjoyed this article, then be sure to check out further Q&As in our Business Basics series using the links below:
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