In spite of all the positive efforts companies are putting into programs for better communication strategies, HR policies, and support for emotional well-being, I hear comments like these every day:
“My boss keeps saying I should take time away from my phone, emails, and 24/7 availability, but it doesn’t feel possible when people keep sending messages at all hours, and I don’t know what’s urgent.”
“I feel like my plate keeps getting fuller and fuller. There’s lots of talk here about life balance and self-care, but we’re asked to do more and more without any additional resources.”
“I know a lot of people are leaving companies right now. It’s hard not to think about that option when every day is so exhausting.”
People want to get their arms around their work but don't see how to start. They want to find the right number of tasks to do each day and do them well. It turns out that to create boundaries, and the clarity around what is and is not too much, we often need the support of our team.
The Normalisation of Saying No
“No” protects a team’s time, energy, and focus. Every one of us needs to constantly strive for a balance of firmness, flexibility, and grace in the way we use this simple but vital boundary. When a team codifies its limits and protocols, it lessens the risks, eases friction, and makes saying no a collective norm.
Therefore, I’d like to introduce you to one powerful tool to help draw lines in the sand around what’s the right use of time. And the change doesn’t require any new technology or skills—just a willingness to do things a bit differently.
The GAP: Group Availability Policy
A GAP is a Group Availability Policy. It’s a gentle outline you build together of yes/no decisions that protects your time and creates a shared norm among a group of colleagues to protect your team’s efficiency and effectiveness. Collectively, you will agree on the norms for setting boundaries, responding to assignments and deadlines, communication and meeting practices, and any limits and guidelines that will let you all work with a just-right balance of openness and protection to do your best work.
A GAP creates a valuable strategic pause each time you check it. It builds in reflection, clarification, and alignment with your limit-setting, purpose, and goals. And don’t worry—the steps below for creating a GAP will show you how to sprinkle in a little flexibility. This is, after all, real life.
Continue to ask yourself—and each other—where you need some give to make the GAP realistic. The ideal you’re aiming for is to set these boundaries carefully, while maintaining flexibility. Being rigid won’t get you where you want to go.
We recommend choosing five question-and-answer sets that everyone can live by most of the time. There will be many individual variations on what each person wants from the GAP. That’s why it’s smart to set the rules around the most conservative concerns and then let the bravest of the nay-sayers choose to go farther on their own.
Here are some common questions that teams mull over when forming a GAP:
- How will we respond to requests that are outside of our job descriptions?
- How do we answer requests that intrude on our weekends?
- What will our availability be on vacation time and sick days?
- Under what circumstances might the team tell the boss no?
- How will we know when enough revisions of a deck or report have occurred?
- What is the earliest time of day that we will accept a meeting or call?
- When do we say no to being included in meetings or email threads?
If you’ve never asked and answered questions like these, chances are a lack of clarity is a significant weight on your productivity.
Read More: 5 Key Internal Communication Trends
How to roll out a GAP
Step 1: Explain that you are going to form your own GAP to protect your time and become aligned in your limit setting. Make clear that the guidelines you create will be flexible.
Step 2: Have team members form groups of two or three with the goal of creating five GAP question-and-answer sets that they’ll live by most of the time.
Step 3: Have everyone report back to the group for a discussion with the goal of narrowing your final GAP to five statements. Remember to balance firmness with flexibility.
Step 4: Have a scribe record your final GAP and find a way to display it prominently. Print and/or hand out a final version for all. Make a note to revisit your GAP in three months for a 30-minute touch-up and to see how it is serving you.
Using the GAP beyond your team
When maintaining and sharing your GAP outside your group—with clients, customers, or internal teams, for example—always communicate your “policies” with softening phrases such as “We usually . . .” or “We try not to . . .” or “It’s not typical for us to . . .” You want to set expectations, but you don’t want to be perceived as rigid.
Good luck! And please share the impact GAP practices have had on your work. I’d love to hear your wins.
Discover: Six Steps to Avoiding Burnout
This article was also published on Juliet Funt's LinkedIn.
This article is also available in Chinese.
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