I’m dragging today. The reason? A colleague sent me a text message in the middle of the night. Besides waking me up from a dead sleep, I tossed and turned all night as I kept thinking about work.
Obviously, I’m not the only victim of “always-on” culture. How bad has it gotten? One survey found that 57% of employees believe that technology has ruined the family dinner because employers expect an immediate response. What’s more, 33% of employees work an average Saturday, Sunday, or holiday.
Why is that a problem? Well, we simply can’t work non-stop. Attempting to do so can be damaging to productivity and health.
“The insidious impact of ‘always on’ organizational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit – increased convenience, for example, or higher autonomy and control over work-life boundaries,” says William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor of management and co-author of the study “Killing me softly: electronic communications monitoring and employee and significant-other well-being,”
According to his research, “’flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”
How can you solve that problem as a leader? Well, here are five ways that you can discourage an “always-on” culture.
Cap workweek expectations.
There will be times when you and your team are expected to burn the midnight, so to speak. For instance, when you’re nearing a product launch you can expect to work overtime. But, that shouldn’t be the norm.
Instead of expecting your team members to work 40 plus hours per week, focus on results. That means if someone completes their work in 30-hours, then don’t pile on any additional work just see they get in more hours.
I would check-in your team member weekly to see what each individual’s capacity is. I would also go over what they have planned for next week to make sure that they’re focused on the organization’s priorities.
Establish an after-hours communication policy.
The temptation to check our phones, even when off-the-clock, maybe too strong for some. The reason? Just like Pavlov’s famous dogs, we’re conditioned to respond to our smartphones.
“Smartphones are associated with ways to meet our psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness,” explains Mike Brooks Ph.D. “We can connect with other people as well as gain access to endless forms of information, news, knowledge, and entertainment.” And, since “these have been repeatedly paired, the sounds of our smartphones elicit automatic, reflexive responses.”
How can you assist your team in breaking this cycle? You may want to implement a policy that bans after-hours communication.
We’ve already seen this with the Right to Disconnect bills in France and Italy. It’s also been proposed in New York City. In a nutshell, these bills make it illegal to contact at specific times. Of course, you don’t need it to be a law to embrace a similar concept.
Stephen Hart, CEO of Cardswitcher, instituted an after-hours email policy in 2018 for his company to great success. “We’ve noticed a marked improvement in productivity, attendance, and wellbeing in our workplace,” he said. “And I’m pretty convinced that the change has benefited our business in other, less obvious, ways.”
How can you enforce this? Well, you could block apps at certain times. But, if that seems excessive, make it clear that you expect all communications to take place during agreed-upon business hours. To get a better grasp on when that would be, create and share a team calendar that displays everyone’s availability
Promote going on a tech detox.
Technology is a blessing and a curse. While it’s made communicating and collaborating with others easier and more efficient, there’s also a dark side.
Interacting too much with technology makes us stressed and anxious. It’s also the biggest distraction at work and interferes with work-life balance. And, it can also negatively affect us physically, like promoting a sedentary lifestyle and damaging our eyesight.
The solution? Go on a tech detox.
At first, this may not seem feasible — especially when trying to get others on-board. But, you could schedule fewer Zoom meetings during the weekday — even if it’s just on a “No Meeting Wednesday.” Even better, you could plan for a walking meeting instead of having everyone gathered at a conference.
Another idea would be to establish tech-free zones. At work, this could be the lunchroom where phones are barred. At home, you could suggest that your team bans electronics from their dining room.
You could also discuss the benefits of taking frequent breaks throughout the day. And, encourage your team to take a vacation. Some employees may be reluctant to do this, so grant spontaneous days off, create your own holidays, or switch to a 4-day workweek to persuade them to take time off.
Let’s be real here. There will be times when you have to interrupt your team’s evening, weekend, or vacation. But, what types of situations require emergency contact?
That’s ultimately up to you and your team. I suggest that you brainstorm possible scenarios on when it’s necessary to break your after-hours communication policy. When you do, everyone will clearly know what constitutes an emergency and what can wait.
If that’s difficult to spell out, you could apply the triage system. Although it’s associated with the medical field, this “is essentially an effective management process of dividing incoming work, crisis, or product issues and bugs by priority level so the highest priorities are handled first,” writes Mo Hamdouna in a previous Entrepreneur article.
To apply an effective business triage, Hamdouna recommends:
- Creating “a list of all the tasks, strategic initiatives, and moves you have to implement.” You’ll want to consider “the key assumptions you need to validate and the strategic questions you need to answer.”
- Prioritizing the list. You can do this by asking: Does it impact the organization as a whole or only parts of it? Is the item business-critical, in other words, does it concern the short or long term survival of your organization? Is it critical to your business? Does it concern the entire organization or only certain parts of it?
- Determining “whether a task can be completed using the standard procedures and processes of your organization, or whether it requires activities and initiatives outside of your established processes.”
Lead by example.
Finally, make sure that you walk the talk. That means if you expect your team to only contact you during septic times, then you must also comply. For example, if you’re furious that someone sent you a frantic email at midnight, don’t berate them with messages on a Friday evening when they’re with their family.
But, there are also some small steps you can take. For me, whenever I’m on a break or done for the day, I make sure that my Slack status is marked away. That may not sound revolutionary. But, it’s an obvious sign to others that I’m not available. And hopefully, they’ll get on the same page. I mean if the boss isn’t online 24/7, then why should they be expected to be?