If you were guilty of any of the above, fear not: you are not alone. According to specialists, countless people, worldwide, suffer the restraints of being on a technology-leash 24/7, all year round. Hotel receptionists testify to this, saying that among the most frequent questions asked by guests, as they check-in for a holiday, is whether there is access to wi-fi. Technical gadgetry and the anytime, anywhere office have created a cohort of workers who are fearful of ever turning off technology, lest it trip them up as they ascend the corporate ladder.
According to management consultant and author of ‘Turn it off: How to unplug from the anytime-anywhere office without disconnecting your career’, Gil Gordon, more and more people have forgotten what it is like to make it through a day without sending or replying to any kind of electronic message, signal, beep or ring.
“Many people genuinely believe that if they were not able to check their e-mail on vacation, they might not be able to take that vacation. A survey conducted by Andersen Consulting found that 83% of U.S. workers stayed connected to their offices while on summer vacation,” he comments.
“So, while the good news is that we have a wealth of mobile-office technology that allows us to work just about anywhere and anytime, the bad news is that the boundaries that used to exist between work and the rest of our lives have become blurred or, in some cases, have disappeared entirely.”
Hours that used to be reserved for private time are now frequently invaded. Technology assists colleagues and clients to reach us during weekends, at night, on holiday and just about anywhere else, all in the name of performance-driven access and availability.
The result is that days slip into nights and work weeks slip into weekends. People do not have a chance to recharge mental batteries at night, over weekends and during holidays. On the surface it may seem that companies are making optimal use of their employees, but actually, they risk wearing people down and burning them out.
Dr Judy Jaye of The Stress Clinic in Johannesburg concurs: “Many people experience self-doubt and worry regarding their competence at work and increasingly, the security of their jobs. When they are essentially bound to their company all the time by technology and their privacy invaded at whatever time, anxiety levels rise. It is emotionally draining and morally destructive. Organisations that do not nurture their employees by allowing them to switch off completely, should not expect the best performance from those people.”
She suggests that companies take a closer look at why it may be necessary for people to be available outside normal work hours. In some cases, it could be a poorly disguised indication of the need for business process redesign. If a company anticipates true emergencies or things that require infinite attention, perhaps it is time to find solutions to prevent such situations. This could involve, for example, setting up a comprehensive customer intranet that provides information that they might require after hours. Perhaps customers or colleagues simply need additional training.
Another reason that many people remain electronically available after hours and check their smses and e-mail while on holiday is because they have forgotten how to do nothing. They are so used to sneaking work and business communication into every free moment they have, that they gravitate back to the laptop or telephone just because that is what they are accustomed to – and because work has become so portable.
Gordon believes that many of us have to learn how to value free time. We are so used to being engaged in either talking directly to people, being on the telephone, e-mail or instant messaging. Communication has become so immediate and ubiquitous that people have lost the ability to be quiet or tolerate quiet.
“I am not suggesting that technology is bad, but I do advocate balance and better management. If we are serious about our careers, we need to make time to switch off, refresh and improve our ability to think clearly and thoughtfully.”
The reality is that most people accept that it is necessary to ‘turn it off’. They acknowledge that not all professions require the ‘neurosurgeon’s life or death approach’. They even accept that, in some cases, they have made themselves indispensable by always being available. It is not always necessary. In many cases, it is not even a condition of employment but rather something that crept in over time simply because of proliferation of wireless gadgetry. The challenge is to get organised, delegate, create back up, be self-disciplined and to have enough confidence yourself to instil boundaries between work and home.
How to switch off without disconnecting your career:
• Organise and delegate so that you have back up.
• Redesign processes where necessary.
• Tell colleagues and customers exactly when you will be unavailable.
• If necessary, pick up messages once a day.
• Define exceptional incidents that you will respond to.
• Record automatic voice or e-mail responses that provide exact leave dates and details of who people should call in case of an emergency.
• Remember, in most jobs, few calls are critical.
(First published in Business Day.)