The Divine Art of Being Unplugged

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted March 28, 2001
by Gwen Moran

It was 1 a.m. when maria bailey called it a night. her company's web site would launch in a week. for months, long hours had been the norm as she and her staff prepared to go live. she left the office around 11 p.m., went home and showered, then powered up her home computer and continued responding to e-mail. walking down the hallway that night, she passed the bedrooms of her four sleeping children and realized that she had not been home to tuck them in or kiss them goodnight for more than a week. it was a moment of revelation.

"I realized that while I've been working to publish a web site to try and help women find work and family balance I've been doing a terrible job at finding balance in my own life," says bailey, the ceo and founder of pompano beach, fla.-based bluesuitmom.com, a site for working moms that went on line in may 2000.

"We were working crazy hours getting the site going," adds Rachael Bender, the site's co-founder and vice president of technology and content. "We all told ourselves and our families that this would change once we launched. But it didn't right away."

As Internet use has grown, Americans report that they spend less time with friends and family and more time at home working for their employers, according to a February 2000 study by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society. Many employees feel as if they are expected to log on, check in, and respond to issues at all hours, well beyond the traditional work day or week, says Paul Rupert, a partner of Rupert & Company, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that works with companies to identify emerging issues surrounding connectivity, including burnout, family issues and time management. Technology has also significantly shortened the time in which most people expect to receive a response, so people cram on-the-fly responses and mini-work sessions into what has traditionally been our leisure time.

But if the workday never ends, neither does the stress. Turnover, absenteeism, and reduced productivity are all problems for overconnected companies, according to Gil Gordon, a telecommunications consultant based in Monmouth Junction, N.J. and author of Turn It Off: How to Unplug from the Anytime-Anywhere Office Without Disconnecting Your Career (www.turnitoff.com). Technological tools, created to make employees more efficient, can actually backfire, causing burnout, decreasing efficiency, and increasing miscommunication. "I often tell people the good news is that technology lets us work almost any time and anywhere," Gordon says. "The bad news is that we do."

The Alwayd-On Company
Employers may soon have to consider how to stem the workday's gradual progression into personal time, and decide how to better handle the technology that has set that shift in motion. "There has been a massive evolution of technological tools and a woefully inadequate development of organizational tools," Rupert says.

But for most companies, it's not that simple. "Many employers say it's not a problem, but expect their employees to check e-mail on vacation and check voice mail on the weekend," Gordon says. Bosses may be aware of the toll a fast-paced culture takes on their employees, but feel that this pace is necessary to stay competitive.

The 22 employees of San Jose, Calif.-based, MetaSound, a supplier of on-hold and messaging packages, are scattered around five different offices located across the country. It would be almost impossible to keep in touch without technology, according to CEO Debbie Simpson. "In our company, if you don't check your e-mail, you don't know what's going on," she says.

Simpson herself carries her mobile phone with her everywhere -- even on family vacations to Florida and the Caribbean. Once, when she was in St. Thomas with family, she got a call about "something big" happening back at the office. She hopped on the first plane possible, leaving her husband with her mother for the last day of their vacation.

"Larger companies don't have to be connected 24 hours a day," she says. "There are more people to pick up the slack. In a small company, though, you have to serve your customers or they will go somewhere else."

Cutting The Cord
Simpson admits that she does worry about burnout in her super-connected culture, but credits her company's supportive environment with helping to stave off that all-too-common malady. "We are like a family," she explains. "Everyone works together. When we sense that someone is getting burned out, we pull together to help that person.

BlueSuitMom, though, has tried to develop a few policies to actually ease the load. Shortly after launch, when Bailey and Bender noticed that employees were being a bit curt with each other and that enthusiasm for new projects was weakening, and they knew they needed to take action.

Around that time, Bender's husband made a comment that it would be nice to have one night where they could go to the movies or just relax without worrying about Bender's work. She repeated that concern to Bailey, and the pair decided to create "E-mail Free Fridays." Once employees leave the office on Friday, they don't check e-mail or voice mail until the following day.

But progress has been gradual, and the company continues to keep unusually long hours. They encourage employees to go home by 7 p.m. and spend dinnertime with their families, even if they need to check in later in the evening via e-mail or Instant Messaging. Employees often log on from home between 8:30 and 9 p.m. to correspond via e-mail or Instant Messaging, and Bailey usually sends a "goodnight message" at 10:45, encouraging everyone to sign off.

"We can't really just 'close up shop' so everyone can take a work-free weekend or evening," Bailey explains. "Part of the reality of leaving earlier is that you may need to finish up some work after dinner; when the kids are in bed."

How To Disconnect
So, what's a growing business to do about connected employees? Here are a few general guidelines:

Communicate Expectations Clearly. The seat-of-the-pants style of work that marked the Internet boom no longer seems so romantic, according to James Marciano, founder of The Square.com, a Web site for Ivy League graduates, whose main business is a Manhattan-based executive recruiting firm. "I see people rebelling against the loose structure," Marciano says. "They're looking for a more structured environment where they have an expectation of how they're going to go to work."

Creating structure means not only setting rules but making certain they are understood. "There's a level of unclear communication that people can misinterpret, especially ambitious people," Rupert says. He gives a simple example: "If you believe that when your boss sends an e-mail on Friday night, he expects an answer on Saturday, you're going to feel that you have to check your e-mail on Friday and act on it. However, sometimes Friday night or Saturday morning is the only time a supervisor might have some time to send e-mail or leave a voice mail. That doesn't necessarily mean that the supervisor wants an answer before the end of the weekend."

Communicating clearly also means paying attention to the implicit messages sent when it comes time to hand out bonuses or promotions. A company committed to helping employees disconnect shouldn't send mixed signals, Gordon says. "If the nonstop worker gets the 'attaboys' because of great work on the weekend, that can undo a lot of the suggestions and work that you're doing," he says.

Consider the Individual. While it may be tempting to create hard and fast rules about working beyond 9 to 5, Gordon cautions against a "one size fits all" solution for any organization. "Saying, 'Thou shalt not work on weekends,' could actually be doing some harm. It's important to recognize that many people choose that and are happy with it," he explains.

Instead, businesses should respect each individual's habits. Overly-connected work patterns may be a company-wide phenomenon or there may be a small group of employees who prefer to work at odd hours. Rupert points out that some people can check e-mail and voice mail on the weekends or in the evening, process the information, and then go on with their free time with no stressful impact. Others, will check an e-mail or voice mail during traditional "off-hours" and either feel compelled to act on them or will worry about it until they can act on it.

Marciano encourages his employees to work 50 to 60 hours a week, but fit it into a weekday schedule. To do so, he doesn't encourage many group meetings, other than a weekly team meeting or monthly motivational lunch. However, he also believes in letting employees find their own work patterns to produce most successfully.

"We treat our employees like adults, like individuals," he says. "But when I've had an employee that comes in early and works all night, I tell him, 'You don't have to do that.'"

Give them a Break. Given that the technology and habits that are stressing your employees out also happen to be keeping you in business, one basic step is to simply make sure they have time to occasionally clear their heads.

BlueSuitMom's E-mail-Free Fridays are one example of this. In addition, the company also encourages connectivity-free vacations. Employees are expected to set up auto responders on their e-mail accounts and voice-mail messages alerting contacts about their time away from the office. During the holiday season, the company also had a "go shopping" day, where everyone left early to finish their holiday shopping.

Bob Flanagan, partner and co-founder of strategic marketing and design firm Red Flannel in Freehold, N.J. (www.redflannelgroup.com), says an occasional slacking of the pace helps employees maintain balance in their lives. "We work as hard as anyone when our client projects demand it," Flanagan explains. "However, when there is down time, we encourage our employees to take advantage of it to recharge their creative juices, so that we can be most effective for our clients."

Set an Example. The culture of a company starts at the top. Flanagan prefers to shut down devices during time with family, unless there is a pressing client issue, and his partner does not use a mobile phone or beeper at all.

Flanagan says he once watched a close relative work in a company where employees were outfitted with home offices, beepers and cell phones. The employer, a large pharmaceutical company, expected all employees to be on-call 24 hours a day, especially after a round of staff cuts left the department with a skeleton crew.

"There were very few individuals left to pick up the slack," Flanagan recalls. "One person probably had a nervous breakdown and suffered severe personal problems because of the stress and the work schedule." When Flanagan started his own company, which has won a number of awards from regional and national marketing and advertising associations, he remembered what he had seen.

Likewise, though Marciano believes he must work a bit longer and harder than others in the company, he maintains his home as a tech-free zone. He doesn't have telephone or cable connections in his apartment. His only link to the outside world is a mobile phone, which he turns off when he goes to bed at about 11 p.m.

But bosses who are aware of the problem and are even considering doing something about it are rare, according to Gordon, who says these issues should be more widely recognized. "I'm not sure we're there yet," he says. "A small but growing number of enlightened employers are taking a different approach."

Businesses that act now to create policies that fit their cultures, workloads, and employees, he insists, will be ahead of the competition in the long run.

Gwen Moran has four e-mail addresses, three phone lines, a fax, a mobile phone, and a headache.

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Compartmentalize, Compartmentalize, Compartmentalize

The number of e-mail messages the average worker receives will increase tenfold over the next decade, according to Michael Dertouzos, head of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and author of the recent book, The Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do for Us. He estimates we'll need eight hours each day just to keep up on correspondence.

Some workers may already be nearing that point. "While you're conducting your workday, using the telephone, attending a meeting, a second workday is going on in the background through voice mail and e-mail," says Paul Rupert. "By the time you get through the intrusions, you are working until midnight."

Dertouzos' message to the overconnected: "We don't have to do this." Companies and employees will need to develop strategies to work with and still leave time for their lives outside of the office. One good place to start: Separating what's important from what isn't. "It's not just that it's too much," says Gil Gordon, "we haven't learned to compartmentalize."

Dertouzos points out that many e-mail programs already come with "filter" features. He reccommends prioritizing incoming mail according to who sent it, creating a "suspense" folder for messages that don't require an immediate response, and practicing a great deal of what he calls "DBR" -- destroy before reading.

He does all of this, and even has progammed push-button shortcuts for form respones, such as "no" or "let's discuss." In his own office, voice mail is forbidden, since he would prefer that people simply call back.

"Just because we feel interconnected, we don't have to trash thousands of years of social conditioning and feel obligated to respond to everything," he says.

As a professor at MIT, he speaks from within the belly of the beast. Still, he believes we can put technology to work to compartmentalize for us. For instance, caller ID information could be used to screen certain calls at certain times of the day. Data can also be shared within and between companies without any human intervention.

We are hardly doing any of this to speak of right now," Dertouzos says. "We are doing all the work with our eyeballs and with our brains."