To get back the work/life balance you enjoyed before the pandemic, Tim Reed suggests some concrete steps.

Most of us are experiencing ‘overload’ right now: too many web conferences, too many hours of work, emails beyond belief and a work/life balance that has gotten out of control. To be honest, this situation is not sustainable and it impacts our ability to deliver with quality, whether at work or at home – which for many of us today is the same place.

A recent experience of mine was reminiscent of the “Jake, what are you wearing?” State Farm Insurance commercial. After excusing myself from yet another family activity, my wife came into my home office at close to 3:00 am. I was still on a conference call that had started the previous day. Her immediate comment that was blasted to over 70 global participants (my mute button was not turned on) was ‘I thought you had died’, or something similar that I can’t repeat here. A production outage issue had arisen the previous day and our global team was still meeting to resolve the issue.

That was a classic example of what life has been like for many of us during this time of Covid. Now, to prevent this from happening in the future, I use online tools to remind me when it’s time to break (and I use the mute button more regularly).

Collaboration Tools Work Too Well

I looked at my calendar for the last month and a typical day has been running anywhere from 10-14 hours of back-to-back meetings (or more accurately, back-to-back video conference calls) with no break. Each meeting requires preparation and identifies at least a couple of action items that require work and focus, which means more time.

Some experts and publications have noted that we have become more productive during this period. But at what cost? What is actually happening to work/life balance as a result of the Covid experience? Some of you may have forgotten what a ‘normal' work day used to look like. We need to address the issue to bring back some sense of balance and improve our overall results. 


The streamlined setup of online meetings with easy video conferencing has been great. But the result is that the time we spend in meetings has grown to the point where there is seldom time to actually do work. The day has become broken into segments of ‘Day’, which means online meetings, and ’Night’, which means working time to get ready for the ‘Day’.

Be bold and remove the recurring meetings (do we all need to see each other on every topic?), stop holding ad hoc meetings, and reduce the length of your meetings. If everyone is well-prepared, why do you need more than 15 or 30 minutes?

Here are some more tips to help fight meeting overload:

  • ‘No-meeting’ time – Block out time in your calendar for ‘no meetings’. Use this ‘work’ time wisely and get ahead of a task or project you’ve not had a chance to address.
  • Walking meetings – Grab your earbuds or headphones, get out of that chair and even that house, and get some steps in while you talk and listen!
  • Hide the self-view – You know what you look like, don’t get distracted.
  • Meeting focus - Recognize how often the meeting veers into other topics, speak up when it happens, and keep the meeting on-topic and moving forward.
  • Busy status – How many times are people trying to get a hold of you while you are on a video conference, distracting you? Take the proactive step to make sure that the online view of your availability in your collaboration environments matches your calendar. Most likely, people are seeing an indicator that says you are available. Change it to ‘do not disturb’ during important meetings. 


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Global Respect

Sure, working as one global team can be wonderful. The ability to collaborate and meet in real time on a global basis is a powerful tool for driving change and delivering new capabilities. But sometimes we forget how to respect each other's time zone differences, cultural differences and distinct work/life balance needs.

Being aware of the time zone differences, ensuring that you don’t book back-to-back meetings for a co-worker who is balancing family and work at the same location, and being respectful of the other challenges team members are facing will help keep them from becoming overloaded. 

Some practical tips I try to apply when addressing time zone and cultural differences include:

  • Slang – Be conscious that we all use slang or terminology that can be hard for others to completely understand.
  • Time zones - We all need to be conscious that booking a meeting around someone’s meal time, faith time, a family event or too early or too late is could create stress for others. Add a color or indicator on your online calendar that recognizes the time zone differences and helps to avoid conflicts.
  • Follow the sun –Use your time zone to work on an item and then hand off to the other time zone to review or complete a task during their normal hours. This approach will save you time and improve efficiency.

A recent global video conference call I attended with participants from India, UK, US and parts of Latin America serves as a good example. A rooster was heard crowing in India, while a co-worker in the US was struggling with kids who did not like their meal choice, and another participant was trying to board a bus while being told to wear their mask by the bus driver. We quickly raised the flag to get to the key issues, confirmed who owned what, and when we would meet again. The call wrapped in 10 minutes and we gave everyone part of their life back. The team was more productive and we quickly resolved the issue the next day.


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Smarter Messaging Practices

Several years ago there was push to improve ‘e-mail etiquette’ and educate people about the good and bad uses of e-mail. The objective at that time was to improve the quality of email, while recognizing that face-to-face or picking up the phone was often still a good option. Fast-forward 10 years and the truth is that, now, one single issue or topic can be distributed across multiple channels: e-mail, text, Whatsapp and other mobile apps. To avoid this, I’m taking some bold steps on my own, which include the following;

  • Reduce the number of emails– I took a quick look back over the last month of ‘sent’ emails and was shocked. My numbers were ridiculous. I now think twice before sending each and every e-mail, and won’t send it unless it is necessary.
  • Designate a ‘Lead Communicator’ – In the IT Operations world we often have one voice for all communication and updates, which we call the Command Center. You may not have the luxury of a command center staff, but think of the approach and how you could do something similar. Designating one voice for the current information and status will do a lot to quell the noise.
  • Avoid ‘multi-channeling’ - I’m also closely watching how many times I feel the need to push out a text about a topic for which I have already sent an e-mail. It is harder to make sense of responses coming in across multiple channels. During a recent IT outage, we had communications happening across email, text, and Whatsapp, and we ran a 24/7 video conference call that was being recorded. To be blunt, this was just too much, so we recognized it and moved to one channel for communication.

It is my view that, for these problems to be resolved, one must take these and similar proactive steps. I continue to try all of these approaches and, to be honest, some days are better than others. But at least I’m now recognizing issues earlier, my days are not so overloaded, and my wife is no longer showing up at my office door at 3:00 am to see if I’m still alive!

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