October 25, 2009
Work, unplugged: Connected to the office 24/7? Break free from the digital leash
When Althea Azeff started a new job last fall, she wanted to strike the right balance between being available after hours if her company needed her and having a life.
“In past jobs, I did not know to set boundaries,” says Azeff, director of communications and investor relations at Avalara, a technology startup on Bainbridge Island. “There was always this 24/7 [mentality], even if it meant commuting to work exhausted the next day.”
Despite her new employer’s fondness for e-mail and an “always on” approach to communication, Azeff let her coworkers know from the start that if there’s an evening emergency, she prefers they call her rather than e-mail or text. Fortunately, Azeff’s higher-ups, whom she calls “Type A++,” were amenable.
“It’s really about training people on how you can most effectively help them,” says Azeff, who doesn’t own a “smart” phone equipped with e-mail and isn’t online all the time after work. “You need to establish that norm, whatever that norm is for you. With some level of predictability, there comes sanity.”
Cali Williams Yost, CEO of Work+Life Fit, a firm that helps companies design flexible work programs, agrees.
“We all deal with technology differently,” she says. “A lot of people like to catch up on e-mail at weird times. It’s tough to give the advice that everybody should turn off their BlackBerrys at 6 p.m. That’s just not how a lot of people operate.”
Loosen the leash
Cali Williams Yost of Work+Life Fit offers these tips for striking the right balance between too connected and disconnected:
Research the corporate culture. When interviewing for a job, ask how connected the team is after hours. If everyone sleeps with their BlackBerrys, you may have a problem.
Clarify expectations. The boss who likes to fire off e-mails at 11 p.m. may not expect you to reply immediately. If unsure, capitalize on your newbie status and ask. Your coworkers will thank you.
Build a reserve of good will. Go the extra mile periodically: Call in to evening meetings or cover for coworkers on vacation. Flexible employees get more support for their own requests to disconnect.
For that reason, Williams Yost suggests figuring out how you work best and when you prefer to respond to non-urgent messages, be it on the bus ride to work, at home before bed or -- lo and behold -- at the office. Then, she says, clue in your colleagues.
That’s what Toby Holmes did in January when he joined Worktank, an advertising agency in Seattle. As vice president of online event services, Holmes manages a team of 25 workers scattered across the country, most of them working remotely.
“I’ve had to be as clear as possible to set expectations and to demystify my availability,” says the Vashon Island resident, who’s at his downtown Seattle desk from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and accessible by iPhone from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week.
“Extra effort does not have to come from being connected 24 hours a day,” says Williams Yost. “It’s about having a good attitude, offering to pitch in if someone’s overwhelmed, offering to take something off your boss’s plate.”
Although Holmes says he initially felt sensitive about being the “balance poster child” in the midst of a recession, he’s more concerned about results than hours -- both for himself and his staff.
“While I’m at work, I’m going to give it 110 percent and meet the goals we set,” he says. “When I’m home, I want to be the best dad and the best husband possible, which means I can’t be checking e-mail all the time.”
In fact, Holmes says, if he does get a little too cozy with his iPhone in the evening, “My kids will call me out on it.”
As for Holmes’ staff, he encourages them to unplug after hours, even those married to the before-bed e-mail check.
“I’m more concerned with people who do work at night than those who don’t,” he says.
Share your experience
Do you feel constantly connected to work? What do you do to free yourself of the “digital leash”? Add a comment below.
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