Sunday, July 26, 2020

Learn to say 'no' if you'd really prefer not to

More than one reader has commented on how one aspect of working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic that they were actually looking forward to was fewer meetings at the office and more opportunities to be far more productive while working from home. Without office neighbors wanting to catch up or grab coffee or compare notes on one thing or another, surely they'd be able to focus more on tasks that needed completing. Without the plethora of meetings to eat up large portions of the day, surely they'd be able to put that time to more productive use.

As remote work settled in, many readers found, however, that colleagues lost none of their desire to chat and the number of Zoom meetings seemed to propagate seemingly at the rate of the Fibonacci sequence.

"We're being asked to go to more tutorials on how to use the technology than ever," writes G.L., a reader who has had his fill of such tutorials. Likening these tutorials - whether they are real-time, asynchronous video, or pdfs of best practices, to meetings about meetings - G.L., and I'm confident, others are a tad overwhelmed.

One challenge, G.L. writes, is that he recognizes that he's fortunate to have kept his job when he knows that unemployment levels have skyrocketed due to shutdowns and layoffs related to the pandemic. While not every meeting nor every tutorial is required by his company and he's certainly not obligated to respond to chatty emails or texts from coworkers, G.L. doesn't want to appear to be disengaged or as he puts it, "not a team player."

"Is it wrong for me to simply say no to some of these meetings or requests for time?" he asks.

G.L. raises a solid concern. Because so many companies shifted to remote work where possible during the pandemic, there seems to have been a strong desire to keep workers feeling connected to both their co-workers and their company. Occasionally, however, such efforts have gone beyond what the company or some employees need. Virtual yoga sessions on Tuesday afternoons seem to fall into the category of distinctly optional.

As clever as it might seem to read on a piece of imprinted wearables, it would spark joy in few of us to have a colleague like Herman Melville's Bartleby character who, when asked to do anything around the office responds with, "I would prefer not to" and instead spends the day staring out the office window at a brick wall. Don't strive to be a Bartleby, G.L.

But G.L. should recognize that if it isn't essential for him to attend every tutorial or respond to every gossipy email to get his work done and he really would prefer not to, the right thing is to simply say "no."

Doing your work as good as possible, being responsive to others so they can get their work done, and learning to focus on what matters and letting go of what doesn't might prove to be an upside to G.L. and other workers during a time when a lot of us are discovering how to work best as we go along.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin

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