The number of employees with stress continues to increase, and in many cases, a working life without limits is a contributing factor.
Management is probably the single most important factor for well-being at the workplace. Good management plays a key role in any effort to prevent stress. Taken to extremes: Stress can often be managed away.
As a manager, it is important to keep in mind that limitless work can be a source of both well-being and dissatisfaction. So, if you want to promote well-being, it is your responsibility to create a framework for limitless work within which all employees can function and thrive.
A high degree of freedom that some enjoy can be daunting for others. The flexibility that is liberating for one employee may feel like a burden for another.
Your role as a manager in working life with no limits is less about instructing, motivating or supervising, and more about helping your staff to unfold in changing and loosely structured contexts. Among other things, this requires that the manager is in a position to read staff’s different needs for direction, framework, management, stability and support.
Making the working day sufficiently predictable for staff is both more difficult and more important in a working day with fewer fixed points in the performance of tasks, and where both managers and staff are expected to be ‘autonomous’.
Here, your job as a manager is to clarify the framework and direction of the organisation. You can do this by translating overall values, strategies and decisions into clear tasks and initiatives that make sense for your staff in their working day.
On the one hand, you must reduce possibilities to interpret a task in several different ways, but on the other hand you must still recognise that your specialist employee is the best person to do the task. In other words, the predictability of the task should not be absolute. If everything is within a fixed framework, the employee will lose his or her motivation and initiative, which are some of the benefits of work with no limits.
For many people today, work is an important part of their identity. We want both professional and personal development in our working life, and we find meaning in setting high professional standards and in being able to influence our own work.
This investment of both personal and professional resources in our work increasingly blurs the boundary between working life and private life, and may also mean that the two aspects have a positive and a negative impact on each other.
Difficulties or burdens in one sphere can thus have a negative impact in the other, and some staff need help from the management to balance home life with working life. It is not only about protecting the employee, so that pressure from a negative period in either private life or working life does not result in the two dimensions merging together, but it is just as much about 'freeing' the employee from difficulties to do their best at work and at home when switching from one to the other.
You help your staff avoid this by providing regular feedback and by ensuring that your staff are not faced with requirements that they do not have the necessary framework or qualifications to meet.
As a manager, you are a role model and guide and you set the stage. Everything the manager does and says – or does not do or say – can be interpreted by the staff.
A classic example is the manager who sends an email at 23:56. This signals that it is acceptable or even natural to work at this hour. If the content of the text message even requires a quick reply, the groundwork has been laid for negative pressure on the employees.
However, managers’ signals are also about their mental approach to tasks and collaboration. It is easier for a manager who exudes enthusiasm and cheerfulness to build a committed and attractive workplace than it is for a manager with a despairing attitude.
And yet, moderation is key. A manager who fakes enthusiasm in connection with a task that staff will find difficult to solve or may not have the right qualifications to solve, risks creating a perception that ‘this should be easy, so we cannot say out loud that we are not able to do it’.
It is about having a positive attitude to the realistic situation and not creating false, positive scenarios. A manager who thrives will often have employees who thrive.
Conflict is inevitable in any organisation. Constructive and professional conflict may be useful and generate new insights, while the unresolved and simmering conflict can drain energy from staff.
Firstly, good conflict management requires that you are aware of a conflict about to happen. If employees and teams manage themselves in day-to-day work, the manager can be the last to know about friction in collaboration.
Therefore, it is important to gear work towards creating an open and trustful organisation in which staff feel safe to bring up difficult topics with their manager. As a manager, you are responsible for intervening clearly in any conflict that may arise in work with no limits, where roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined. If there is uncertainty and disagreement about who is doing what, you as a manager must have the personal competences to resolve the conflict constructively and be present in difficult situations without becoming part of the conflict.
It is a well-known fact that well-being is increased when you involve your staff and let them influence their own work situation. Having influence on your working life, collaboration partners, choice of methods, workflows and tasks reduces stress.
But if everything is fluid, the manager should also set limits for staff involvement in matters that are peripheral to their field. In other words: Who should be involved in what – and why?
Because some types of involvement create more uncertainty than well-being. Involving staff in a decision-making process in which they have no influence on the result anyway may be a source of frustration. Sometimes it is a relief that someone else has to make the necessary decisions. On the other hand, if you want to involve staff and bring their competences into play, do so well in advance.
When and how it makes most sense to involve staff will always vary. In general, the closer the decision is to day-to-day work and its requirements, the more important it is to consult the staff.
Appreciation, regular feedback and recognition will normally create a sense of security and reduce the stress level of staff. In work with no limits where the criteria for success may be diffuse, it is even more important that you show your appreciation clearly and regularly to ensure well-being.
Concise and constructive feedback should not only be seen as something that promotes well-being. Feedback is also a tool to align expectations and can adjust the basis for a task along the way, so that no one goes off track in tasks that can be done in several ways.
Moreover, appreciation should never be 'the icing on a bad cake'. Managers should not praise or recognise staff for no reason, and there is no point in providing feedback after a task has been completed if the feedback could have changed the entire task.
Just as your staff work better with clear expectations, you safeguard your own well-being as a manager by defining performance requirements and through ongoing dialogue upwards and outwards on your management work, through using models and tools, and through developing your own skills.
Furthermore, a management network can be a good place to share doubts and challenges with peers. In a network, you can seek advice on general issues common for many organisations in working life with no limits.
By far the majority of managers are aware of the well-being of their staff, but may forget that their own well-being is reflected at the department. A manager's well-being can thus help prevent stress because as a manager you send a signal to your surroundings when you look after your own well-being and work actively for a better working life.
In modern values-based management, it is no longer a sign of strength to appear ‘invulnerable’ or as a robot that never shares feelings of doubt and insecurity or signs of fatigue. This ‘superman culture’ may signal that looking after yourself is a sign of weakness, and it can create a culture of silence in which staff keep dissatisfaction and stress symptoms to themselves until it is too late to prevent sick leave.
This article is based on the publication Ledelse uden grænser (Management with no limits) published by the Personalepolitiske Forum (Personnel Policy Forum) in collaboration with Væksthus for Ledelse in 2008.
Even though the booklet is a few years old, its content is still highly relevant. COVID-19 has accelerated the trend we have seen over the past 15 years of remote work with no limits. We have been given permission to edit the publication for this article. Find the original version here (In Danish).
We often hear of the concept ‘limitless work’. Having no limits in working life affects almost all employees – some more than others. Therefore, it makes sense to have a clear definition of how work with no limits can affect working life.
Many elements can contribute to the feelin of having a limitless working life. Some are easy to recognise, such as freedom to choose your own working hours and workplace, but others can be more subtle. If life at work feels like pressure rather than giving a sense of freedom, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly where dissatisfaction comes from.
Overall there are five forms of work with no limits:
We have to understand these different forms of work with no limits in order to ensure the most possible well-being at work. Download our handout which describes the different forms of limitless work here: