The workplace benefits of being out of touch

Most people I know feel too connected – not to family or friends, but to electronic devices like smartphones and computers.

They feel a need to check emails, texts and social networks almost constantly on the off chance that an emergency has popped up in the last five minutes that they absolutely, positively have to address.

Most people I know also would like to feel less connected to those devices. They realise that they could go an hour or a day – or (gasp!) even longer – without going online, but two things prevent it: Constantly checking our texts and emails has become like a tic, or a hard habit to break; and most of us feel that if everyone else is available 24 hours, then we have to be, too.

“Some industries are so highly volatile that people need to be connected all the time, but most of us overexaggerate our own importance,” said Dalton Conley, dean for the social services at New York University and author of “Elsewhere” (Pantheon, 2009). “Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – if we’re always available, then we’re expected to always be available.”

But, as Conley added, companies are increasingly realising that employees need to be disconnected from time to time and that “giving workers time to chill helps ultimate long-term productivity.”

But the question arises: Is this something we can do unilaterally as individuals or do we need some sort of corporate shift that acknowledges and addresses the burnout of always being on call?

“It’s very hard to turn off by yourself,” said Leslie A Perlow, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and author of “Sleeping With Your Smartphone” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).

Perlow did a survey of 1,600 managers and professionals and found that only 2 percent turned off their devices, even while on vacation. But Perlow discovered during her research that organisational change, even on a relatively small scale, could make a huge difference.

She did an experiment with a six-person team at the Boston Consulting Group. Each team member would have a night off a week, starting about 6 pm, when they would be unreachable electronically. There also was a weekly team discussion about how the process was working.

Not everyone was happy to participate. Although the workers could each choose their night off, many of them – at least at first – didn’t want to take it.

“Some said they didn’t know what they would do with a night off,” she said.

There was a safety net. The team member covering for the out-of-pocket employee would receive any emails and assess whether they were urgent. If it was a rare, real emergency and no other team member could handle it, then the worker taking the night off would be called.

Perlow replicated the pilot program several times at the Boston Consulting Group and has now expanded it to 14 countries with more than 1,000 teams. She stressed, however, that it was not enough to take the time off. Employees also need the element of group discussion to “collectively rethink how to do work.”

Other companies have tackled the problem as well. At the beginning of 2012, Volkswagen reached an agreement with a small portion of its workforce to stop the email server for employees who used BlackBerrys 30 minutes after their shift ended and restore it half an hour before work began the next day.

As Roger Cohen wrote in a Times Op-Ed piece, “It’s a start in encouraging employees to switch off, curb the twitchy reflex to check email every couple of minutes and take a look out at things – like family and the big wide world – without the distraction of a blinking red light.”

Is this a trend?

“I think we’re starting to discuss it,” Conley said. But, he acknowledged: “It takes a little while for the social norms to evolve and solidify like with automobiles and telephones. I’d say it’s 50-50 that we’ll work it out and 50-50 that we’re just going to collapse. Physically we can’t keep going.”

Tony Schwartz, president of the Energy Project, which helps companies with the problem of information overload, agreed.

“Every thoughtful and progressive organisation realizes this is an issue we should deal with,” he said.

Nonetheless, he says he believes individuals can take some steps on their own.
Schwartz suggests turning off electronic devices for about 90 minutes at a time, preferably in the morning, when we’re usually the most productive. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and author of “The Willpower Instinct” (Avery, 2011), said you should first make sure technology is really a problem for you. It might not be.

“It’s bad if it’s interfering with your quality of life or getting you in trouble,” she said.

The most important thing is to pay attention to when you reach to check emails or texts or get on social networking sites – something most people do without even thinking.

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