Managing technology so it doesn't manage you

Articulating clear expectations, inside and outside your institution, is key.

There is little debate that technology is changing the nature of an institutional leader’s work as some institutions are abandoning brick-and-mortar offices and dispatching executives into the field armed only with a laptop, cell phone and tablet PC. But the ubiquity of technology presents the leader with certain challenges, chief among them assumptions about the leader’s availability and expectations about his or her responsiveness.

At a recent retreat with denominational executives, I was again struck by the rush at breaks to grab devices to read email, return calls and check in. Asking one leader about his seemingly chronic need to read email, he replied that the sheer volume of email that he receives requires him to prune it at every opportunity to keep his inbox manageable. Even with his regular deleting and persistent responding, he lamented that the number of emails requiring detailed response ballooned over our time together.

He is not alone. Most executives know the reality of an overflowing inbox, and time on the road only adds to the problem.

So if technology is here to stay, what can an institutional leader do to manage it instead of being managed by it?

First, it is necessary to establish clear institutional expectations. Providing employees at all levels of institutional life with clear expectations for their availability and their responsiveness is not just helpful, it is essential in the digital world. And while defining these expectations is important, it is equally important to take note of the behaviors modeled by senior executives as they can compromise the stated expectations.

It is equally important to communicate clearly to those outside the organization. A few years ago, it was commonplace to receive “out of office” messages from colleagues while they were traveling for work. The culture has shifted. Seldom do I receive these emails; now, I receive responses to emails at all hours of the day and night. One leader told me that he sets an “out of office” message that promises a response within 72 hours. “Then I respond within 48,” the leader said. “This way people are happy when I get in touch before I told them I would, and I have given myself critical space to think about what they have written.”

As institutional leaders, it is always a challenge to distinguish between what is urgent and what just feels that way. Technology can have a democratizing effect -- equalizing voices and messages -- so that all messages can feel immediate in their need for attention. But what really needs our attention? And what needs our response? Knowing the difference can make all the difference.