You may have heard the old adage that "the best ability is availability." Well, in terms of Leading Your Career, that is absolutely the truth. Opportunities rarely walk up to someone neck-deep in work or are already being pulled in a thousand directions. The opportunities instead usually present themselves to the people whose eyes are up and anticipating the next challenge. Don't get me wrong, many managers have their "go-to" people they consistently think to reach out to first, and in those cases, your goal is to be considered one of those go-to people! The only way to get there is to find and convey availability within your already busy world.
The truth of the matter is that we are swamped, and it's hard to keep ourselves available. However, your availability is more a perceived notion from those around you than it is a reflection of your actual commitments. When you convey how available you are, people are hardwired to pick up on your queues. As such, you can probably do more to be perceived as available from your team. Here are a few ideas:
Make it a habit to OWN your virtual status: In my recent experience with virtual meetings, most people are prone to end meetings when the topic wraps up and feel less inclined to let them trail on for the full allotted time like they used to for in-person meetings. If that's the case with your meeting and you wrap up early or if it gets canceled but not removed from your calendar, go ahead and develop the habit of changing your status to available! It's great that our meeting tools notify people when you're busy or in a meeting, but when you're not busy, be quick to fix that and appear "available."
Be selective about the meetings you attend: We're all over-invited to meetings. Sitting through an hour-long discussion because "it would be nice if you were there" or "it would be good for you to weigh in on this." There are many approaches to minimize meetings, and the first is to be more selective about the ones you attend. You're not obligated to go to a meeting just because you were invited. You can cordially decline and ask the meeting organizer to read the meeting notes after the meeting and weigh in as needed. This will also help reduce your chance of being checked out during the meeting and doing other work, which is more disrespectful than just declining the meeting in the first place.
Stop what you're doing when conversing: I have a bad habit of not breaking keystroke when someone comes up to me to chat or calls me on Teams. Often I don't even raise my eyes to show I'm paying attention. I'm aware of and working on this because there isn't much more you can do in a professional context that says "what you're saying is not important," like the slightly annoyed head turn while you're eyes don't break contact with the computer. People want to feel heard. When someone reaches out to you or comes to your desk, they are taking intentional action. They thought, "I should chat with Sarah about this," they take time to reach out, only to be confronted with a semi-checked-out reaction; if you do that enough times, you won't have to worry about being bothered because no one is going to want to approach you.
Build office hours into your calendar: This doesn't need to be officially posted hours of availability if you feel that seems too superficial or lacking humility (though it is a very effective way for busy team leads to stay available and manage expectations). It could be a communal timeframe everyone on the team has and is aware that "from 9 AM - 10 AM and 2 PM - 3 PM we're not going to book meetings and instead reserve that time for asking each other questions". 99.9% of questions can wait until that time frame and reduce the chance of someone on your team waiting for your icon to turn green all day.
Most of those ideas are about intentionally setting boundaries on your time to make yourself available. It doesn't stop there, though! In our "always-on" world, we need to ensure we're carrying that availability over to our home life and not trading family time for "catching up on some work items that could wait "….yes, it can wait. Here are a couple of ideas on how to stay available to your family:
Leave the phone in the bedroom: I understand everyone has some excuse or reasoning to keep their phone on them, and some are legit. If part of your family is out of the house or if you have a family member that's sick. There are good reasons, but they are few and far between; you need to be honest with yourself and get your priorities in order. Work emails can wait until morning. Work messages can wait until morning. Your Facebook status can wait until bedtime. It's a hard habit to break, and we feel naked without our phones, but your family needs you MORE than those co-workers you're so eager to please, so figure out a way to ditch the phone when it's family time.
Take a few extra minutes after work to unwind: One thing working from home has done to me is remove the after-work drive home "me time." Where no one needs me, I could listen to a podcast, the radio, or sit in silence with my thoughts. Sometimes mentally wrapping up my day or even preparing for what's to come at home. I don't consistently have that anymore with a hybrid work environment, and I quickly discovered it's needed. I can't go from wrapping up a meeting to settling fights between my 3 and 5-year-old. I wasn't quite checked out of work yet, so I could never fully check into home life. What I've been doing is taking 10 minutes after work to decompress before coming down to be with the family. I get my mind right and set my own internal expectations of family time. I may change, splash some water on my face, or just lay on the bed a moment while listening to some music and thinking about the family I'm about to go down and embrace. Those few extra minutes go a long way to being available for your family.
Put important life events on your work calendar: I'm sure we've all said, "I didn't know about that," and were promptly reminded about the three times we were specifically already told about that. I do prefer more separation between my work and home life, so I keep those calendars mostly separate. As such, I am very intentional about putting important events, appointments, or dates on my work calendar to see them multiple times a day and be reminded. This also helps with my expectations of what we'll be doing as a family that week and, more importantly, making sure I'm not "running late" or "overbooked" on those days, so my family knows I care about being available during our time together.
There are only 24 hours in a day. That's it. No takebacks. Work and life typically come in waves in terms of needing your attention. It's about how prepared you are to ride those peaks and valleys, which can often feel out of your control, dictating how happy or stressed and present you are. Availability is time, and it's one of your greatest possessions. Because of that…
I ask two things of you this week:
Pick two items off the list above and try to implement them into your daily routine. Challenge yourself to stick with it. It'll be hard, it can be a pain to build, but if you give it the time, you'll be paid off with even more time.
The next time you chat with someone who seems overwhelmed with work or life (there's a lot of that going around right now), recommend they try to eliminate some of the noise by taking on one of the above actions and help them through the struggle of implementing it. What better gift can you give someone than time?
Your family needs you to be there at the moment. Your career needs you to be there at the moment. Nothing I said today is groundbreaking, and it's all small incremental steps to bring you to a better place. Some thoughts on how to silence the noise and focus on what matters because life happens when you're available or not at the end of the day.
Note: All of the opinions expressed in this article are my own, and are not a reflection of the viewpoint of my employer.