Workplace Topics

February 15, 2013

Unplugging: Some employers helping workers disconnect

Unplugging: Some employers helping workers disconnect

Michelle Barry and Mark Jacobsen of Centric Brand Anthropology in Seattle strive for the elusive work/life balance. (Matthew Ryan Williams via The New York Times)

In this age of hyper-connectivity, some companies are adopting policies aimed at weaning employees from their electronic devices.

Atos, an international information technology company, plans to phase out all emails among employees by the end of the year and rely instead on personal communication. And starting this year, employees at German automaker Daimler can have incoming email automatically deleted during vacations so they do not return to a flooded inbox. An automatic message tells the sender which person is temporarily dealing with the employee’s email.

No one is expected to be on call at all hours of the day and night, and “switching off” and observing quiet periods after work is important “even if you are on a business trip,” says Sabrina Schrimpf, a Daimler spokeswoman.

A study conducted last spring by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found that while cellphones were valued as a way to stay productive, there were downsides to being available at all times.

The nationwide survey of 2,254 adults found that 44 percent of cellphone owners had slept with their phone next to their bed, and that 67 percent had experienced “phantom rings,” checking their phone even when it was not ringing or vibrating. Still, the proportion of cellphone owners who said they “could live without it” has gone up, to 37 percent from 29 percent in 2006.

Sam Chapman, chief executive of Empower Public Relations in Chicago, says he used to feel phantom vibrations and frequently read and sent email on his BlackBerry in the middle of the night. He slept poorly, did not feel refreshed in the morning and considered himself addicted.

“I wanted to make sure that what happened to me didn’t happen to my employees,” he says.

So Chapman adopted what he called a BlackBerry blackout policy. He and his staff of about 20 turn off their devices from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays and completely on weekends for all work-related use, with rare exceptions. “When I’m well rested, I show up to work ready to go, hit it hard, and then stop and become a human being,” he says.

He maintains that regimen while traveling, and says the policy has increased company productivity.

But it is not always easy. When Michelle Barry, Mark Jacobsen and a third partner created Centric Brand Anthropology, a Seattle-based company that advises clients on brand strategy, design and culture management, they gave serious thought to the issue.

“From the beginning, a huge priority for us was to have a good balance between work-life,” says Jacobsen, Centric’s vice president and creative director. “Yet we have found that very difficult to do while working with large multinational clients,” which often require international travel and constant availability.

Being a startup compounded those challenges. “Just because you can email at 2 a.m. doesn’t mean it’s a good thing,” he says.

Centric encourages employees to prepare a week before a trip, designating a colleague as backup, informing clients about their travel plans, warning that contact may be sporadic and trying to avoid deadlines immediately after they return. Employees are also encouraged to take spouses or partners on longer assignments and to build in downtime, says Barry, the company’s president and chief executive.

When traveling herself, she says, “I make a commitment to myself not to stay up all night answering emails” and to limit it to about 30 minutes. She jots down after-hours thoughts using pen and paper.

Experts say there are no firm data for how many companies have policies restricting the use of electronic devices outside the office.

“The companies I know actively encourage workers to stay connected after hours and on weekends,” says Dennis J. Garritan, a managing partner of private equity firm Palmer Hill Capital and an adjunct professor at Harvard Business School.

“It’s positioned as a win-win,” he says: Employees remain aware of what’s going on and feel less overwhelmed when they return to the office, and the company benefits because employees are more engaged and productive even when away.

Wayne Rivers, president of the Family Business Institute, a consulting firm in Raleigh, N.C., says many companies “value employees who answer their phones at 1 in the morning.” In most cases, it is left up to each worker “to manage his life-balance issues and exercise the discipline necessary to avoid exhaustion and burnout.”

Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT and author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” says she thought more companies would adopt similar policies.

“I’m optimistic, because I think that everybody is feeling the pinch,” she says. Employees are too busy using devices to have the conversations that matter and are necessary to get business done, she says.

“I don’t use the metaphor of addiction,” says Turkle, who is also a psychologist. “We’re not going to give it up. We shouldn’t give it up. It’s more like food, and being on a digital diet. The question we should ask is: ‘What are the healthy choices?’ ”

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