How to say no in No-vember for a happier, healthier, more productive work life

Originally published in the Globe & Mail November 21, 2022

As companies are adapting to new ways of working at varying speeds, there is a need for organizations, teams and individuals to optimize and prioritize along new dimensions: What work is best suited in-office versus remote? What is best accomplished synchronously versus asynchronously? How can we rethink and revitalize meetings so we aren’t stuck in meetings all day with no time to think or do?

Many employees are overstretched and overwhelmed, finding there aren’t enough hours in the day to deliver on commitments. According to Microsoft’s September 2022 Work Trends Index, 48 per cent of employees and 53 per cent of managers say they are already burned out. In the same report, it was noted that last spring, meetings had increased by 153 per cent since the start of the pandemic, “double bookings” increased by 46 per cent in the last year and, in an average week, 42 per cent of participants multitask during meetings. This goes to show that, in many cases, there is no slack in the system. Prioritization must go beyond simply reordering an overflowing to-do list.

Much can be done at an organizational level and team leader level to help prioritize and create capacity for employees, so that they can focus on what matters. Not just cutting big projects and product launches, but reconfiguring how work is done and delivered. For example, does that quarterly business review really require a 100-page polished PowerPoint deck and eight hours of meetings? Leaders and employees alike should be empowered to evaluate each task and deliverable with the following three Ds: Delay, Do Differently, Don’t Do, to challenge the status quo.

At an individual level, it may be time to simplify our lives by saying “no” to things that do not serve us. Liane Davey, author of The Good Fight, highlights 30 drains on health, happiness, and productivity you can start saying “no” to in No-vember, perfect timing before the holiday rush adds to our stress. Below are five, though you can find the rest here:

  • Prioritization: “‘Priority’ comes from ‘priori’: first; not 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th,” cautions Ms. Davey. Otherwise said, when everything is a priority, nothing is. Your work priorities should clearly align with company and team goals and broader purpose. If the alignment is unclear, say so, and seek clarification. Let’s not prioritize until we determine what needs to be de-prioritized.
  • Collaboration: According to Deb Mashek, author of Collabor(h)ate, ask these four questions to determine whether you should say no to a collaboration opportunity: 1) Is the opportunity aligned to your values and interests? 2) Are you able to meaningfully contribute to this project (for example, skills and capacity)? 3) Are there appropriate resources for the scope and scale of this project? 4) Are the other people on the project able to meaningfully contribute? If the answer to any of these is no, you may want to take a pass on the collaboration opportunity.
  • Wasting in-office days: This doesn’t mean don’t go to the office, it means make it count when you do. In this transitory period, leaders may need to suggest what would be beneficial to do on in-office days, so we don’t have the worst of both worlds – hard to find space (as a result of fewer desks and hot-desking) with many workers in virtual meetings all day.
  • Perfection: Waiting for the perfect moment means potentially missing the window of opportunity, entirely. In our new world of work, where there is so much uncertainty, we need to not let perfection get in the way of good enough. For example, when it comes to adjusting to new ways of working, be aware that we will make mistakes, learn and iterate.
  • E-mail fights: Selecting appropriate channels for different types of communication is an essential part of adjusting to our new ways of working. Before sending that emotional or controversial e-mail or message, think about how it may be received: tone and nuance are difficult to decipher in written form. Instead of potentially getting into a battle, save difficult dialogue for the channels in which they are best-suited: in-person, video or phone, depending on your respective locations.

While we are on the topic of saying “no,” one final idea for leaders: establish NOKRs, not just OKRs (objectives and key results): what employees should not do to get the most critical work done. This will help them prioritize more effectively and remain aligned with the team and organization’s objectives without the burden of extra low-value work. Happy No-vember.