That’s a matter that comes back endlessly : disconnection. I’m not – or not only – talking of disconnecting from social media, which is a trendy topic, but of global disconnection, most of all regarding to work.
It has nothing to do with the usual and endless conversation on disconnecting from social networks. It’s not because one is off that he must isolate himself from friends, stop following the news. But if the definition of vacation is not being at work, then we can ponder the tendency we have to not break the ties while we are supposed to breathe some fresh air and reload our minds. This matter is much broader than social media because it encompasses all communication means and even beyond : one can be disconnected and still do some work.
Does the evolution of work forbids disconnection ?
It’s the most common justification : work has changed. It has become more collaborative, what implies to stay connected with others at anyt ime, requires more responsiveness, what implies to be reachable and available at any time. Late in the evening, on week ends, on vacation. Disconnecting means one is not reliable, lacks conscientiousness. That’s work in the XXIst century. The “always on” era.
Some have a more nuanced approach. What they say is that there is not that much information to deal with nor any need to deal with it faster. What changes is how passing the monkey is made easier by technology, in just one click. Another point is the transparency and visibility brought by some new technologies : one does not want others to think he refused to deal with an issue. A the email era, only the people in copy used to know. Now, with social software, nearly everyone can know. So people fear that not dealing with a request send at 8.00 PM on friday or in the middle of his vacation harms his reputation, no matter how urgent it is, even if it can wait 3 days or 2 weeks.
Nothing new here : that’s something we all know and that’s in some way peculiar to some cultures. In some countries people leave the office when they’ve finished their work, in other they can’t leave before their boss if they don’t want to be considered as lazy people.
The last thing about the matter stands in two acronyms. FOMO and FONK. FOMO for Fear Of Missing Out, FONK for Fear Of Not Knowing. Both have something to do with technology but not only. Some people have always feared to miss something what led to behaviors such as : more control, more reporting, unnecessary attendance to meetings, request to be in copy of any email.
So that’s not the evolution of work that makes it impossible to disconnect but :
â€¢ the incapacity of letting go, what is nothing new
â€¢ the increasing quantity of information and more transparency made possible by technology that increases the volume of signals and made those who don’t handle them feel guilty.
â€¢ a kind of schizophrenia towards permanent connection : more and more say it should end, either for them and their colleagues, but few dare trying to fix it because they don’t want to be seen as unproductiveness advocates.
Anyway. Despite of the popular discours that says that hyperconnectivity is cool, modern and productive, many of its early advocates that used to promote it when it was only possible for a few employees start saying that things have been too far. Stress, anguish, wasted and unproductive vacation because they come back more exhausted than when they left. And businesses start understanding it : they see the impact on well being at work, sustainable productivity and wonder how to deal with the issue.
Disconnecting is good for onself and for others
So, how to organize disconnection in order it won’t be prejudicial to anyone. Neither to employeesÂ nor to organizations. As a matter of fact the two easiest responses are everything but effective.
– the technological solution (shutting down accesses, what is what some organizations are thinking about) : it’s a human issue first. Shutting down accesses to people who don’t understand what will only make them more stressed and frustrated even if it’s for their own good.
– the personal and individual solution (telling people to disconnect), because it’s both an individual and collective issue. If one should understand that it will be good for him and won’t harm the organization, people around should also find such behaviors logical and don’t blame those who disconnect.
Here’s what can be observed in organizations that begin to conside the issue seriously.
1Â°) Have a corporate stand
What is needed first is a shared awareness that overconnectivity is not that good. Having more and more employees and leaders convinced is useless if there is not a shared and conveyed corporate message. The acknowledgement has to be anchored in a logic that makes sense regardingÂ to business. Some arguments that can be cited :
– well being at work, stress prevention, work life balance protection and, more broadly, sustainable performance. Having employees connected 24/7 who sacrifice their free time and vacation makes so sense if, one day, they crack up and leave their job.
– management improvement. For a manager, leaving one’s team on their own for a short time is a good way to make them prove thay can be autonomous. From an employee standpoint there’s nothing worse than having his managers watching everything and intervene when he’s supposed to be off. That’s seen as a complete lack of trust. Worse : it encourages employees to do the same when they’re off.
– legal concerns. In some countries it’s often the trigger, when organizations are aware of the risk but are looking for a key reason to change things. Today many HR departments (depending, of local laws) fear to see courts considering that being connected when off is doing overtime.
– facts : how many things alledgedly urgent can, in fact, wait. At last 95%. When everything is urgent, nothing is. People must learn to prioritize.
2Â°) Establish rules and good practices
Once everyone knows that’s the corporate stand and what’s expected…the hard job is still ahead. It’s, of course, possible to establish strict rules and enforce them manu militari but it’s hard to manage and can even be counterproductive. If radical rules are possible (prevent accesses), common sense and awareness must prevail.
Things will depend on one’s context but simple rules are often enough.
Common sense must prevail over rules
– anticipate disconnection periods, having nothing “in progress” when it’s time to leave, nothing to do when off. If one starts saying “I’ll finish this stuff in the plane and send it on monday”, the game is over.
– look back over the situation with one’s team and decide what to do if such or such thing happen.
– inform those with whom one interacts frequently (customers, colleagues etc…) and not the day before one leaves. It will help them to take the constraint into account in their agenda and avoid last-minute issues because others thought everyone was going to be available during the next ten days.
– establish a procedure to handle exceptions and major issues. First define what is a major issue (most of times less than 5% of urgent requests are not urgent, what matters is to acknowledge receipt), then how to contact the person who’s off. In this case phone is often the best way.
– make the most of one’s absence to develop and highlight other’s work : increase their scope of responsibility and look back over things once back. It shows trust and it’s useful to know that one’s team can work autonomously in case a major issue happens one day.
3Â°) Work at different levels
As we saw, the challenge is not only about technology and is not only a matter of individual decision and common sense : the eyes of others, increased transparency and a tendency to make oneself guilty account for a large part of the issue. So, businesses that try to deal with overconnection often act at two levers : managers and employees.
As for the seconds, what matters is to make them feel less guilty, even reassure them through rules. Some businesses are starting to tell their employees that they don’t have to answer to emails received when they’re off duty, outside of work hours, that such emails are not opposable to them.
Same with managers who fear to look too soft in the way they manage their team. After having explained why behaviors should change, some businesses establish rules to reassure them. “No email outside of work hours” that put pressure on employees. Exemplary managers are key to make change happen at the other levels.
That’s why softly imposing things is sometimes good. Not because it’s the best way to change things but because it moves responsibility to the “system”, making people more comfortable. “It’s not me…it’s the policy”.
But one can also consider that all this is stove-building and that stressed employees, painful work and inability to prioritize what should be is a side effect of what work should be in the XXIst century.
But what is sure is that no company will achieve its digital transformation without enough mastery and hindsight regarding to the tool they use.