Stay away from my emails

I run a lot of wellbeing workshops and manager training. In most sessions, the subject of email use will surface at some point.  Often, someone will suggest that organisations should prevent email from being sent outside of office hours.  Sometimes they will have seen examples from other countries or businesses where emails are banned between certain times, or even prevented by IT systems.

I’m not a fan of this suggestion.

Just what are regular office hours anyway? If we assume that it’s 9-5 (or thereabouts) all we do is reinforce the outdated notion that these are the hours that people do / should work. If we banned emails outside of these hours then we limit the option for people to work flexibly or just simply when best works for them. It is just a whole new version of command and control management. There are already so many barriers to flexible working, this would be one more to overcome.

I was therefore pleased to see this research from the University of Sussex that will help me respond to this debate with evidence. The headline findings are that restricting email isn’t actually the nice simple wellbeing solution that some people think it is, and could actually do more harm than good.  You can find more information here.

When it comes to wellbeing, we are all different. One size only fits one.  What causes one person stress won’t even register with someone else.  The same applies to the question of what enhances wellbeing – there is no single approach here either.

Blanket policies and more rules aren’t the answer.  Neither is removing people’s control over how they work; we know that this only has the potential to cause even more stress.

Instead, if we want our employees to be well, we can start by treating them like adults, giving them autonomy and letting them work in the way that works for them.

Or is that just a bit too radical?

The often practiced art of non-work

Do you want to get some work done? Or do you want to do something a bit easier instead?

After a couple of decades of working in organisations large and small, I’ve concluded that there are many ways to ensure that nothing at all very much gets done. Here are the most popular ways of avoiding real work, making decisions, influencing real change or taking effective action.

To become effective at forms of non-work, consider this list.

First of all, if you don’t want any real work to take place, ensure that all meetings have at least 10 attendees. Responsibility for any actions will be so diffused no one will ever remember who is supposed to be doing what.  This works even better if the room is filled with people who have lots to say; it is inevitable that you will run out of time and a further meeting will be required to finalise the conversations.

The next best thing to a large meeting is to set up a Working Party. A misnomer if there ever was one.  The purpose of a working party is normally to look at a particular issue or undertake a discreet task.  Unless there are very well defined aims and objectives for the group, or determined timescales for completion, working parties can expand exponentially.

Run some Focus Groups. Decide that nothing can be done until you have some feedback on something from someone or other.  Ensure that, for  maximum non-work impact, multiple focus groups are held for separate stakeholder groups.  Report back the findings of a focus group to a Working Party.

Have an audit. Before any action can be taken it is a good idea to understand where you are now. So an audit of current practices / customers / stakeholders / external factors (etc) should be undertaken.  This could be completed by a Working Party (see above) for maximum inefficiency.  An audit will take at least six months, and the output of which will undoubtedly have to be reviewed by a committee who will have a meeting (see first point).  You can easily get a year of no work at all out of an audit if appropriately combined with other form of non-work.

Take a minuted action from a meeting. Guaranteed to kick the actual thing in the long grass until 48-hours before the next meeting when everyone will look at the agenda and work out what they haven’t done since the last meeting ended with relief all round.

Set up a sub-group to report to the main group / working party (no, I don’t know either, but I’ve seen plenty of them).

Hold a conference. First of all, a great deal of time and energy will be needed to plan the conference, including significant numbers of meetings.  Then there will be the conference itself, which, for those skilled at non-work can take at least several days of work time. There’s the (usual) daylong conference, and then some time required to set up and set down, send follow up emails and the like.  Typically conferences will have a plan for ensuring that the content isn’t forgotten and there’s follow up which most people recognise will never actually take place but everyone will pretend to dance.

Have a team-building activity (no good will ever come of this so just stop now).

Deferring a decision until the next meeting. This can arise in various forms.  ‘Taking something away’ is the main culprit.  Similar work terminating versions will include the need for further interim discussions (a pre-meeting before the next meeting), time for everyone to reflect, or a chance to consider how other organisations or departments might be tackling the same change.

Set up a committee. Like a Working Party on acid, many committees are nothing more than talking shops that create minutes, agendas, papers and buffet orders.  If you make sure that this is a committee with a large number of attendees, this will compound the inaction.

This blog post may feel a little snarky. It isn’t intended to be (well, maybe just a little bit).  There is a serious point here; in most workplaces there is always peripheral, life-sucking, value lacking stuff that gets in the way of the real stuff.  The stuff that makes a difference.

What do you want to be known for? Sitting in meetings and taking an agenda item away for further discussion? Or doing something that is real, valued, makes a difference?  There is of course value in some of the activities I have criticised. But not all of the time.  Not as the default mode of working or approaching any business challenge.

We can do real work, good work, better work.

Or we can perpetuate the bureaucracy.


10 Tips for Successful Flexible Working

I talk about flexible working a lot – but normally I’m being asked to deliver training or write policies. This week, someone who is starting to work flexibly for the first time asked me for some tips for making it successful.  This is what I said to them.

  • Clearly communicate your working pattern. Tell people, block the time out in your calendar so people don’t try and schedule meetings, and use an auto signature or out of office to communicate when you are available.
  • If you work part time, say so. Don’t preface it with ‘only part time’. You are not only anything.
  • Don’t be too flexible in return for your flexible working agreement. There might be occasions where a meeting is taking place at a day or time you don’t work, or people have an urgent issue they need to discuss with you when you are out of the office. Accommodating this once in a while is fine – but don’t make it a habit or let it expand so that you are doing it on a regular basis. Set your own boundaries.
  • Be prepared for ‘banter’. I wish I didn’t have to write this tip, but unfortunately it still happens. The ‘it’s alright for some’ comments are still rife in many workplaces, alongside the sideways glance at the watch. This is not your problem – it’s theirs. Decide in advance how you are going to handle this. You can choose to ignore it or have an answer ready. I tend to go with ‘I work flexibly because it makes me more productive’, often accompanied with a hard stare.
  • If your working pattern involves you working outside of what most people consider ‘typical’ working hours, consider how this will impact on others. For example, you may be online or sending emails at unusual times. Make it very clear that you don’t expect a response until the recipient’s normal working hours – this is especially important if you hold a senior position.

home working

  • Build in reviews of your working pattern. It’s good to keep flexible working under review. Check in with your manager every so often that the working pattern is working from their perspective as well as yours.
  • If childcare is your primary reason for working flexibly, don’t try and mix work with childcare. It isn’t good for you or the kids, and your work life balance will be impacted.
  • If your flexible working includes an element of homeworking, boundaries are also important here. Create a separate space for work if you can, and aim to have a defined start and finish time for work to prevent it spilling over into your home life.
  • If you are working a different schedule or from a different location to your colleagues, be proactive and talk to them about the best ways to keep in touch and stay connected. Make sure you own this conversation to ensure you don’t get left out. Let people know how best to contact you when you are not in the office.
  • Master technology. You don’t need special equipment of software to work flexibly or remotely – but you can make the most of readily available tools to facilitate effective communication and collaboration.


And finally….. be loud and proud about your flexible working. Working flexibly does not make you any less committed to your role.  Being open about flexible working helps to change the culture and pave the way for others.  If you feel that you can, be a flexible working role model.


Flexible working is already here….

……it’s just not evenly distributed.

Apologies to William Gibson for both appropriating and amending his quote.

Last week I shared on social media that I was really rather chuffed to be writing a book for Kogan Page, entitled ‘The Flexible Working Revolution’.

I have been inundated with connections keen to share the awesome stuff they are doing at their organisations in the name of flexibility.  I am looking forward to featuring some of these stories in the book in due course.

But this morning, the TUC shared the output from a recent poll that found that 1 in 3 flexible working requests are turned down.  I have also received comments from people in recent days, keen to share their horror stories when attempting to achieve even a small amount of flexibility in their working lives.

It’s clear that some organisations get the benefits of flexibility, not just for working parents as so often so stereotyped, but for wellbeing, inclusion, talent acquisition, retention and employee engagement.  But there are others that start from a position of no, of distrust, of flexism.

flex 2


Flexible working is in high demand, but more people want it than are able to achieve it.  I believe that flexible working is a key part of the future of work.  While some people are already embracing it, there are others that will continue to resist despite increasing evidence that this will be a talent risk.

Like with most new innovations or ways of working, the late majority will catch up – eventually.  But while we wait for them to do so, the talent might just have up and moved to somewhere more flexible instead.

Flexible working is already here.  Where are you?



Reflections on training. 

A few weeks ago I attended a training course. It wasn’t anything to do with my usual work, but was about learning to help children with Down Syndrome to navigate the transition to teenage years. 

As someone who regularly delivers training, I take part in learning as a delegate though that lens, experiencing it as a learner, but looking too at way the leaning is designed and delivered. The course left me with much to reflect upon, from both perspectives. 

The training itself was of the type that we now so often criticise. It was PowerPoint heavy, led from the front of the room by experts, and there wasn’t a huge amount of delegate activity. It was definitely low-tech.  There were no signs of flipped classrooms or action leaning sets or planning for knowledge transfer.  Just lots of content. 

There was an ice-breaker. A term second only to ‘role play’ for striking fear into your typical training attendee. From the oh so old school ‘introduce the person next to you’ routine to assembling pasta and marshmallows, we’ve all been there. But this was an ice breaker in every sense of the word. It was a question: ‘what word do you use with your child to describe their penis or vagina?’  Result – laughter, heads in hands, ice broken – but with an important point underneath used as a platform for serious discussion. (Children with learning disabilities should be able to have the appropriate descriptive words for their body in case they need to use them, for example to a doctor or the police). 

How often do you see an ice breaker at a learning event that either really breaks the ice, or is relevant to the learning itself? 

The extensive content was brilliantly delivered by two trainers who quickly established both their credibility and knowledge, but also their personal passion for the people that they help and support. They created a space in which it was safe to talk about difficult, deeply personal challenges. A room in which emotion could be expressed. 

It didn’t matter that the training room was bland. That it was a Sunday. That there was lot of PowerPoint and a cramming of content. No gimmicks. No workbooks or handouts. Just people who wanted to learn being taught solid content by people that understood.  

As a trainer, facilitator and occasional lecturer, I love to introduce new stuff to learners. I’m a fan of unconferences and Open Space, using technology in the classroom, MOOCs and flipped classrooms. 

But this course was a reminder, that underneath all the shiny and the new, what really matters is the quality of your content and the desire to learn from the people in the room. 

Symptoms or Causes

My good friend Fiona McBride has recently become a qualified yoga teacher. She has blogged about how, somewhat unexpectedly, she had found a connection between her yoga teaching and her work as a facilitator and coach. You can read her post here

The post resonated strongly for me as a few years ago I qualified as a Personal Trainer. Completely removed, or so I thought, was this learning from my day to day HR and coaching work.

But not so much.

Good and less good people stuff has similarities – whether we are talking about work or wellbeing (or indeed both).

Too often, personal training tackles symptoms and not causes. You want to get fit? Here’s some cardio. Want to tone? Have some weights. Lose weight? Here’s a diet plan. All laudable, but the missing piece is what lies beneath – and is where you can make a real difference. One that will sustain.

Why someone put weight on in the first place. Why someone suddenly wants to change their lifestyle. How they got to where they are today. Motivation, commitment, will.

Goal setting, starting with why, starting with the end in mind, identifying success, asking good questions, understanding, encouragement, appropriate challenge. Individual coaching, personal training…. the two are often the same in terms of approach. That one takes place in a work setting and the other in a gym barely matters.

But in organisations too, we see similar themes. We see a problem and want a quick, shiny solution. We don’t always take the time to really understand the true nature of the issue or how we got to where we are. We don’t do the deep work. We don’t seek the evidence. Treating symptoms and not causes. Instead, we use unhelpful phrases like ‘we are where we are’.

Whether we are talking about a fitness regime or the latest change initiative, quick fixes don’t work, and neither does ignoring the journey to now.

Doing the deep work is what makes all the difference.

5 reasons why employees don’t engage with wellbeing at work

I’ve been out and about talking to people about wellbeing at work. Talking to employees about why they do or why they don’t engage with wellbeing initiatives, activities and programmes where they work.  I am particularly interested in secondary and tertiary wellbeing initiatives; tools to enhance or boost wellbeing, tools to help people cope.  From mindfulness classes to resilience training, onsite fitness classes to events, health checks and counselling, what makes employees get involved – and what are the barriers to taking part?

These conversations have led me to find there are five main barriers to engagement with wellbeing at work.

I’m too busy.

We are all busy. Many of us like to make sure that other people know that too. Some people say that they simply don’t have time to engage in this sort of thing at work (or indeed at all). But the Personal Trainer in me questions this narrative – because this often what people say when they really mean that they don’t want to, don’t see what’s in it for them, or simply aren’t prepared to prioritise it. It’s a reason many people gave me (usually the first reason), but scratch the surface and you’ll often find something else instead. Sometimes, it is something else in this very list.


We all know that when it comes to mental health many employees are concerned about stigma. According to Mind, about a third of employees wouldn’t want to tell their manager if they are suffering from a mental health issue.  But the people I spoke to felt this about broader wellbeing activity too.  Going to a wellbeing event might make people think you can’t cope, that you need help, that you aren’t up to it.  It’s not what serious, successful people do, don’t you know. They are concerned about the potential reputational impact of being seen to need wellbeing support at work.


As I’ve blogged before, many organisations work to support their employees in boosting wellbeing or dealing with the symptoms of ill-health when they arise. But they aren’t always quite so quick to tackle the big, strategic, organisational culture related stuff that works at the preventative level.   This in turn can to cynicism on the part of employees. The organisation isn’t serious, it’s all just window dressing, there’s no substance, no desire to do the difficult stuff.  It’s just care-washing.

Lack of awareness.

I recently organised some focused wellbeing activity for an internal event. I communicated on every channel known to a HR professional.  Several times.  I covered emails, intranets, social media and some old school posters too.  Why didn’t you come along? I asked people.  Didn’t know about it, came the reply.  It doesn’t matter how much you think you have communicated and communicated, your message won’t necessarily be getting through to the people that need to hear it.

Lack of management support.

There are two aspects to this. Firstly, a lack of role models (especially at a senior level) talking about wellbeing, being seen to (really) care about it, or even attending some of those activities for themselves. The second aspect rests with the actions of the immediate manager in terms of encouraging their team to get involved, creating the permission and providing the time. Where managers and leaders are aware of wellbeing and their role in enabling it, this can make all the difference.  Where it doesn’t happen this will impact on take up.


When it comes to wellbeing at work, there is no silver bullet.  There is no single solution to supporting people, engaging people, even tackling that bigger strategic stuff.  Wellbeing is personal, contextual.  What it means to live and work well is different for each of us.  There will be some who will never choose to get involved and that’s just fine.  But for those who just might want to but feel constrained or unable, tackling some of the stuff on this list of barriers is a good place to start.