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Are you too available at work?

Written 17 April, 2019, 5 minutes to read

We all want to be good employees. We want to reply to requests promptly, as ‘team players’ who help their colleagues out. We want to participate in group chat, and be part of decision making and discussion. But none of this should come at the expense of the job we were actually hired to do. Being too available at work comes laden with a whole melting pot of problems – falling behind with your own work being just one. Here’s what you need to know to about the dangers of falling into the constant availability trap.

Why we become too available at work

The first thing to consider is why we are too available at work. Most of us have an inbuilt desire to please, but it goes deeper than that. Causes of over-availability can include:

  • The desire to be visible: This is a big one – so big we wrote a post about it. We often have an (often subconscious) desire to announce our presence at work, so our bosses know we’re here, committed and working hard. This can be demonstrated in many ways, like sending ridiculously early or late emails to show dedication, or feeling you must reply to messages as soon as they come in – even in your downtime.

  • Fear of negative image: The last thing we want is for our bosses or colleagues to assume we’re slacking, unreliable, or just not as enthusiastic as others. Some people have problems putting themselves first, and “don’t want to let the team down” by not replying to messages instantly, declining requests to help, or simply putting their own tasks first. We don’t want to block people; we want to be accommodating.

  • Fears over job security: Sadly, we live in a world where putting in extra time is viewed, in many companies, as a necessity. If you want to get ahead, you’re obliged to spend extra time in the office – and in the US, the average office worker clocks in an extra 23 hours a month just to be more noticeable! If this culture permeates your own workplace, it’s no wonder that many of us have an ever-simmering anxiety that tells us to always be available.

Signs that you’re too available at work

Now we know why we allow ourselves to become too available, what are some of the most common ways this manifests – and how we can we stop them taking over our day?

1. Replying to Slack/email immediately

In this day and age, many of us are hardwired to check our phones for messages every few minutes. Being in a mode of “always on” may make us feel like we’re being efficient, but in truth it’s pretty harmful. Living in the world of immediate availability not only kills productivity, but disrupts focus.

Most emails or Slack messages aren’t important – they may be urgent, but that isn’t the same thing. Fight the urge to immediately reply to messages; just because we live in a world of instant messaging, doesn’t mean our replies must be instant too. It takes, on average, 23 minutes to refocus after a distraction, so set boundaries for when you check messages.

2. Being sucked into work in your personal life

As much as we all know we should leave our work lives in the office and switch off when we’re home, that’s not always possible. Urgent things do crop up, and there’ll be times when you can’t avoid replying to emails or making calls from home. But this should be the exception, not the rule. The more you show you’re OK with replying to work messages during your evenings or weekends, the more people will feel entitled to your time. Don’t become the “go-to” out of hours person!

3. Not setting boundaries and getting interrupted

If you don’t set clear boundaries for your own work, you will keep getting interrupted. One of the most common (and dreaded!) culprits is meetings. Some companies insist on having the whole team present, but this is usually unhelpful; it may make managers feel they’re being inclusive, but the reality is that many company meetings are totally irrelevant to us – and not only are they tedious to sit through, they also steal our time away.

Learn to say “no” to meetings. Treat them as a last resort. Being assertive is one of the best things you can do to stop people assuming you’re so amiable and available you’ll attend anything, or help anyone out. Why should you stop your own productive to work to settle someone else’s unimportant query? Be polite, but firm. Attend meetings that are meaningful to you. Help people when you can afford to.

The dangers of being too available

Being overly available is itself a symptom that something’s not quite right at work. If you’re too available because you’re trying to prove a point to someone – for example, how dedicated you are – then trust issues can inevitably start to creep in. Once distrust takes hold of your workplace, company culture quickly starts to crumble. Feeling trusted is key to positive employee experience, so never minimize its importance.

If you’re too available because of structural reasons – e.g. invasive “always on” communications, a culture of “dropping by” or attending all meetings – you can get locked into destructive cycles. Address this form of availability whenever you see it (notes on how to give effective feedback here). Make others realize that spending your day in a state of constant distraction has a knock-on effect on your ability to focus. It makes you feel inefficient and anxious, eventually leading to burnout and stress. Everyone should be able to prioritize themself and their own work – always.

The easiest way to become more effective at work? Defend your time.

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