It’s was the happy times of omniscient connectedness. “Always on” was fashionable. Mobiles, 3G, and wifi allowed us to be connected any time, anywhere, on any device. It was simple, efficient, easy, convenient. We were continuously coordinating and adjusting in real time. It was nice to be always connected to one’s tribe. Moreover, it was productive. Any problem was solved in real time, no more slack periods and wasted time.
Of course there were grumpy people. They were not seeing the purpose nor the value. They were seeing a threat where were seeing an opportunity. It was often those who were the last to buy a mobile in the early 2000s and, over time, came to wonder how they managed to live before. Nothing serious.
Being “always on” was being modern. But it was “before”.
So being “always on”was being modern, up to date. Even the reluctant adopted the common discourse. In the private sphere it was nice and useful. In the professional sphere it also had advantages and, anyway, refusing would have meant appearing as someone who refuses modernity, someone who tries to avoid work, who hides. The, convinced or not, everyone became “always on”.
But the discourse recently started to change. We hear more and more people complaining (but not too loudly), saying that’s becoming unbearable. Some talk about social fatigue but that’s not exactly the point. Social fatigue – as a matter of fact it exists – comes from too much exposure to social signals and media. It has more to do with some specific technologies and is often limited to personal life (considering the dramatically low adoption of social collaboration technologies in the workplace). What people complain about is too much entreaties, too many incoming messages whatever the channel (email, SMS, phone…not only social technologies), their intrusive nature in their personal time (as a matter of fact the collapsing frontier between private and professional often mean more work at home than more family and friends in the office). In brief, it’s mainly a work issue that has not the same causes as social fatigue and does not requires the same responses.
So that’s a disease that seem to be spreading fast in the workplace but a silent disease. Like a kind of venereal disease, it makes those who suffer from it feel so guilty and ashamed that they fear mentioning it. Kind of double punishment.
3 hours left per day for discretionary activities
Those who want to know more about the matter because they experience it or want to find a cure must read this study from the Center For Creative Leadership that says loudly what many think silently. An analysis that shows it’s urgent to fix the issue.
• Numbers : managers and leaders interact with their work 13,5 hrs a day, 72 hours per week. They have only 3 hours left each day for discretionary activities (spend time with their family, read, take a shower etc…)
• They don’t blame technology for the situation but their company
Before going further it’s important to think about this last point. It’s very common to blame individuals and consider that they suffer from their own inability to get organized or disconnect. What is wrong : unlike in the private sphere, employees at work are parts of system and the stakes are different.
One can leave Facebook, Skype, turn his phone off during lunch and at night. At worse, some relations will be shocked by such a rude attitude (at least it will make it easy to know who are your real friends) but there’s no big deal. People have autonomy in their private sphere, and they can rely on their own judgement. What is no longer true as they enter the company’s office.
What’s at stake in the office is of first importance. First achieving a mission that can be put at risk if they don’t receive of deal with a message.Second, their personal reputation : no one wants to be seen as the guy who does not read “urgent” mails received during the diner, his vacation with his family, leaving colleagues and clients to their fate and showing how poorly engaged he is. In the workplace no one decides alone on how to use communication means. Their use is dictated by implicit norms (culture, habits, usages) as well as explicit ones (process, rules, organization, management). Such norms need be shared : who should be held responsible ? The one who sends an email late at night or the one who reads it instead of having a quiet diner ? The asynchronous nature of communication tools allows to be keep things ambiguous : no one will make a call in the middle of the evening but can send an email, considering that the recipient is not forced to read it before he wakes up. Then cultures, habits and management makes a difference. The whole thing depends on a collective norm and those who refuse to follow it do it at their own risk even if nothing is frankly and explicitly said. What makes things even more ambiguous. Any change must be collective, not individual.
Being “always on” hides the organization dysfunctions
The problem is not technology but how we use it. As usual.
That said, let’s move to the third point.
• technology and “always on”are used to hide organization dysfunctions, process mediocrity, poor management, a culture of fear (putting 100 people in copy of an email is not a bad use but a way to protect oneself) and even a lack of staffing.
That’s the most important point of the conclusion. Please notice the two acknowledgements : not only the system is responsible for the wrong use of technologies but it uses them to hides its limits.
Technology and, most of all, asynchronous and ubiquitous connectedness made two things possible :
- a new time-space elasticity : people don’t need to be available at the same place, at the same moment to exchange.
- implicit delegation : passing the monkey with a SMS or by forwarding an email without having to see the recipient face to face, explaining things and asking frankly.
Permanent connectedness : between unspoken things and implicit moral constraints
“Before”, when a project was poorly management, that a process was dysfunctioning and generated more exceptions that the norm, not much time was needed to realize that one was running out of time, that the project was stuck and that a change was needed. Today, the notion of availability has been artificially extended to absorb the gap and hide dysfunctions though the use of technology. And it comes with a pernicious effect : organizations implicitly taking ownership of employee’s time and attention, regardless to his own priorities, no matter he has something else to do or not. As I already heard : “my inbox is the list of other people problems…bu who takes care of mine ?“. Without even mentioning the fact that this new space-time elasticity allowed to under-staff organizations by taking ownership of a larger part of the time of those who are there.
And always in an implicit way, with lots of unspoken things and a kind of moral constraint. Anyway, that’s the way employees feel it.
The more being always on is necessary, the more the organization is dysfunctioning. That’s both an HR and organizational performance issue. Not a matter of quietness for employees who want to preserve their private sphere. Things won’t be fixed by codes of conduct only but by changing the way work is organized.
I’ll end quoting this wise sentence from an interlocutor of mine : “digitizing the workplace must help us to be more efficient during the work time, not to endlessly extend it to hide how inefficient we are or the lack of resources”.
It’s a matter of management. Not technology.