don’t know when I began working in the evenings, on weekends, or
in the car on a long family vacation. I suspect it was about the
time we started using email at work and I received my first laptop
computer. Even now, without the technical gadgetry I sometimes leave
behind, the habit of working around the clock has worn such a deep
rut in my personal time that I need to climb out of it—quickly.
Thankfully, Gil Gordon, who I first learned of when researching
the field of telecommuting, is here to help. He’s written a strikingly
cogent book, with a title that immediately gets under any modern-day
worker’s skin, Turn
It Off: How to Unplug from the Anytime-Anywhere Office Without Disconnecting
spent time with me this summer (after he’d just returned from a
gadget-free vacation) talking about what we, as leaders, can do
to create an environment where people aren’t expected to be on a
technology-leash 24-hours a day, either by circumstance or by habit.
He is by no means anti-technology, anti-work, or anti-gadget. Instead,
he calls on us to be savvy in our use and reliance on portable devises.
They should aid our situation, not mask what might really be going
on. Since reading his book and conducting this interview, I’ve made
substantial changes in my attitudes and practices around time and
technology and have sustained these changes through difficult times.
My hope is that they can offer you some answers and perspective
in your anytime-anywhere office that will help you be a better you,
What do leaders need to learn around seeking some balance and turning
off their technology?
Leaders face a couple of different issues than non-leaders around
balance and technology. Not only do leaders have to look at balance
in their own lives, but they also have to decide what kind of balance
they want to afford their employees. And, what kind of a role-model
do they set and what kind of behaviors do they want to try to reinforce
or extinguish (as managers and leaders always do), either deliberately
or almost unconsciously? Their role is really a double one. I’m
not trying to prescribe, “thou shall not work on weekends, or at
night or on vacations” and that “thou shall have a perfect ten foot
high wall between work and the rest of your life.” I really want
people to look in the mirror at the life they’re living and decide
for themselves if the portability of office work has created a problem
people genuinely believe that if they weren’t able to check their
email on vacation, they might not be able to take a vacation. And
we might bemoan that situation, but if that’s how they see it then,
for them, that’s a workable solution. The same thing holds true
for leaders: that’s why it’s just as bad for a senior executive
to issue a memo saying, “Effective immediately: The company email
system will be shut down on weekends so you can spend time with
your families and on your hobbies.” That’s just as bad as autocratically
expecting everybody to check their email all weekend.
What should leaders do?
My first manager when I got out of graduate school and joined the
corporate world had a number of great aphorisms and sayings. One
of them was, “Management expects, what management inspects.” In
other words, if you really want to find out what a manager holds
near and dear to his or her heart, all you have to do is look at
what they pay attention to. If your boss is away on vacation for
a week and comes back, what’s the first project or first issue you
are asked about on Monday morning? That will tell you quite clearly
what’s on top on that person’s priority list.
we apply that rule to the issues of boundaries and values between
work and the rest of life, certainly we can look to the leader’s
role. And I mean all the leaders in your organization, not just
the big boss. For example, do leaders (those setting an example)
routinely come to the office (or do work at home) at times most
people would consider to be more personal time than work time? If
that’s the case, you should ask the question, “Is this person working
in a way that may harm their performance in the long term?” Going
beyond words and platitudes, trying to manage this kind of behavior
is vital to your organization's success. The employee who, for example,
comes home after putting in a full week to then work a full weekend
and is always being paged or expected to check voice mail several
times a weekend—that person comes back in Monday probably feeling
less rested and less capable than he or she did when they left Friday
afternoon. The same thing is true many times over if it happens
over the course of a vacation.
employers subtly or explicitly require people to be connected in
this way, out of the office and out of normal work hours, it may
appear that these employers are doing so in the name of increased
productivity and efficiency. That’s only a short-term gain at best.
Every time a person is on call over the weekend or during vacation,
solving critical business problems, you’re chipping away just a
little bit more of that person’s overall performance and ability
to contribute to the organization. I think that’s a message that
senior leaders and managers must learn.
Absolutely. To help them learn that, what benefits does the organization
receive by encouraging and nurturing people to feel that they can
choose their time wisely and that they can actually take time off
to do what’s important?
The benefits to an organization are that people work with greater
intensity, greater concentration, with less resentment, and a lot
less sense of begrudging this electronic leash. What’s at the heart
of your question, in a way, is the confusion we see in so many arenas
between whether we’re paying people for hours or presence versus
paying them for output or product. This is the last vestige of the
transformation from the factory and farm era into the knowledge
age. Just as it was true in the factory and the farm that more hours
were better, we too quickly assume that the same is true for the
knowledge worker—but it’s not. Manager’s need to realize that everything
they may be doing to try to improve performance may actually backfire
over the long term.
I’ve known many people who believe that working long hours was the
same as working smart. That’s clearly not the case. This reminds
me of my pet hamster from childhood. She was always working, but
didn’t get where she wanted to go.
It is a lot like the hamster and the wheel in the cage. The most
interesting thing that I’ve seen over the years in my work with
telecommuting and now more recently with Turn
It Off, is that asking these kinds of questions is long overdue
and may very likely uncover some hidden problems. Let me give you
an example. If you say to one of your employees “I need you to be
available in case I page you or a customer has some questions over
the weekend,” maybe this is an opportunity for your employee to
say, “Wait a minute. Why are we getting all these calls on weekends
from customers? If you’re expecting true emergencies, or things
to happen that require our infinite attention, why aren’t we working
to prevent these situations?”
solution may be to give customers direct contact to information
currently only on the company’s intranet so they can see where their
orders are in shipping. Another solution may be to do some training
for the customers so they get the knowledge they need instead of
always looking at the person that the company provides for a stopgap
solution. Potentially, a number of other things can really eliminate
the motivation for that weekend call to begin with.
think asking people to work all the time is a thinly disguised indication
of the long overdue need for business process redesign . If anything,
I think the availability and the portability of the technology,
in a very subtle way, makes it easier for us to be sloppy in how
we run our organizations. It’s just as in telecommuting where, if
a manger knows that he or she is only going to see a subordinate
maybe twice a week and then speak on the phone the rest of the time,
that manager tends to get a lot more organized about to-do lists
and expectations. Well the same thing with this. If we decide to
build boundaries around work, then maybe that will motivate us to
find ways to eliminate things that would normally be beyond those
boundaries. This should motivate those kinds of changes.
Well in some ways you’re saying to use the way you look at the hours
you work as a way to diagnose what’s really going on and look for
a clearer way of learning how to improve your business. Other things
we should learn?
That’s right. One of the reasons I think a lot of people are working
the kinds of hours they are and checking their emails on vacations
(and all the other stuff) is that perhaps they have forgotten how
to do nothing. They’ve forgotten how to spend quality time with
their significant others or their family members or even by themselves.
They’re so used to sneaking work in between phone calls and between
soccer practices that they keep doing it.
we have the luxury of three hours together with our kids, with our
spouse, or on our own, we don’t know what to do with it. So, we
gravitate back to the laptop or the cell-phone just because that’s
what we are so accustomed to doing. Also, I ask people when I do
seminars about the book, if I waved a magic wand and gave you five
more hours a week to use for whatever you want—and you couldn’t
use it for work—would you know what to do with it? And almost always
I get a sea of blank faces staring back at me. As a result, I talk
about this in the book. I urge people to set-up, just like a work
to-do list, a personal to-do list.
you want to resurrect a long-standing desire to learn Italian or
maybe you want to become more of a wine expert or you want to learn
how to become a dessert chef or just sit around and read a good
novel. In some ways, we’ve become unaccustomed to and uncomfortable
with idleness; we have this gravitational pull to get back to the
work, and because the work is so portable, it’s very easy. Now I’m
not, by any means, encouraging nationwide slothfulness or the return
to a thirty-hour week or anything else that would smack of being
anti-work. All I’m saying is that we may just have to learn, because
we’ve pushed ourselves so much in the other direction, how to value
a little bit of free time.
Shouldn’t people learn (or relearn) the value of quietness too?
Absolutely. We’ve gotten so used to being engaged in either talking
to people, or being on the phone, or email, or now instant messaging.
That’s one of the things what worries me about the technology; that
it’s becoming immediate and so ubiquitous that people may be slowly
losing the ability to be quiet or tolerate quiet. Again, I always
have to be careful when I say something like that; I don’t want
to be misinterpreted as suggesting that technology is bad. I’m just
saying that, as is often the case, what goes on in business mirrors
what’s going on in the rest of society and many people are deprived
of and miss other types of experiences. People who’ve managed to
carve out some time for themselves (and their families) really begin
to treasure and value it.
It’s clear to me you are not proposing being extreme in any way.
If anything, I think what you’re advocating for is balance. When
we are not working all the time, we’re not doing nothing all the
time—we’re finding appropriate and applicable use of that time to
refresh and to improve our ability to think clearly and thoughtfully.
Right. And I think that whether or not that appears to be balanced,
integrated, or whatever the word is, may be irrelevant. It’s how
the individual feels. I urge people to take a careful look at not
only how they feel, but also what kind of feedback they’re getting
from their family and friends about how their time is being spent.
Many people, for whatever reason, just thrive on that activity level
and that’s great. They would be as frustrated with being unable
to access email over the weekend, as somebody who feels they always
must do it.
factor that’s becoming more relevant every day is the state of the
economy: so many employers going to layoffs, downsizing, slow-downs,
and trying to do more with less. As a result, you’ve got what some
people call “survivor syndrome.” The people left on the job, who
have not received a pink slip, now have their own work plus maybe
some other person’s work to do and they’ve expected to do all of
people look at this “turn it off” concept and say, “Yes I understand,
I buy into it, but how in heavens name could I possibly put this
into practice when I’m afraid that if I did I might be the recipient
of one of the next round of pink slips?” And I think the answer
to that is very simple. You have to be judicious in how you use
it. The person who finds himself on call seven days a week should
not go into the boss’s office on Monday morning, shut the door,
slam his fist on the desk, and say, “I’ve had it. I’m not going
pick up my phone on weekends, I’m not going to check my email at
all from Friday night to Monday morning.” That’s too extreme, like
jumping off a cliff. People may have to implement these changes
in a more tiered, slow way. Work instead on figuring out ways to
ease in the changes at a pace those around you can accept even in
these crazy times.
That also brings up the issue of appropriateness. People have been
hired for certain jobs knowing they would have to be on a pager.
For instance, doctors or people who run time-sensitive data centers,
Absolutely. A growing number of jobs have begun to look like neurosurgery.
Certainly there are medical professionals whose jobs deal with life
and death and who are the ones most accustomed to this; they know
what comes with the territory. A growing number of people in the
business world have work that also seems to be critical. There are
two important differences however. One is the point you made, which
is the distinction between whether you signed on knowing this was
going to be a condition of employment versus whether it was something
that just sort of crept in that you never bargained for.
second thing is that, unlike the case where it’s the neurosurgeon
who has to be on call to be able to perform the neurosurgery, in
the business world I’m just not convinced that many of things that
look like crises and that call for that indispensable person are
really that way. People tend to make themselves indispensable. Leaders
and senior managers in organizations allow far too much of that
to happen and don’t encourage anywhere enough cross-training and
developing backup strength. It’s wonderful to have an employee who’s
highly trained and very much in demand (and you sort of feel that
your organization could not function without that person and that’s
why they have to be on call 24 hours a day) but what happens if
the proverbial truck hits that person? If I were a senior leader,
I would be petrified to see situations where so much of our ability
to continue as an enterprise rested in the hands of a small handful
of people. It’s simply not good management or good leadership. To
say that we can reach them 24 hours a day, because they’re carrying
all of these wireless gadgets, is not the solution. That, in fact,
makes it worse rather than better.
Is this “on-call” situation ever warranted in business?
Look at a situation, for example, where two big companies are considering
a merger. There must be dozens, if not hundreds, of people on both
sides of those deals who are literally on call 7 days a week, 24
hours a day, just because of the complexity of pulling off a deal
like that. Even though those people may look for the next job that
does not have them electronically attached, for now their lifestyle
may be very much like that of the neurosurgeon. Here again, I think
there’s a difference between people who are in that situation temporarily—because
mergers like that either happen or they don’t (and that intense
work period ends)—versus somebody for whom this is going to continue,
month after month after month. Most people can handle episodic bursts,
but they have problems with it when it becomes a day in and day
out part of the routine.
Speaking of day-to-day, where does some of this cross over into
issues of telecommuting?
Well certainly the people telecommuting, working at home one to
three days a week (on average), have to face this more than the
typical office worker. When you, in the words of Paul
and Sarah Edwards, “work and live under the same roof,” you’re
working literally a few steps down the hallway from where you live.
you’re working in an office, no matter how late you work and how
tough a day you have, eventually you’re going to leave
that office. And even with all the technology, that physical separation
does make a difference. But when you’re telecommuting, and especially
if your path from the living room to the bedroom takes you past
the spare bedroom where your home office is set up, you look in
there and can see the message light on the answering machine blinking.
It’s just that much harder to separate work and home life. But,
one lesson we’ve learned from successful telecommuters is how to
turn it off at times. The whole notion of shutting the door, both
literally and figuratively, on the work at the end of the day is
important.. I’ve know countless telecommuters over the last 20 years
who were able to pursue a long lost hobby, do a lot of volunteer
work, or simply be more involved as a parent without losing a beat
of their work. They did this by simply getting out of that mandated
run-to-the-office every day routine.
So, where should people, tempted by the technology to work around
the clock, start?
First, this whole process has to begin with self-assessment. You
cannot be pushed into turning it off just because somebody else
tells you you’re working too long or too hard. That’s useful data,
but you have to look in the mirror and at what you’re putting into
the job, at what you’re getting out of it, and decide whether or
not this is a problem to you. That’s always a first step.
it is crucial to look beyond the symptoms and look for the underlying
problems so that you don’t take a simplistic approach like saying,
“I’m just not going to answer my pager this weekend,” or “I’m simply
not going to check my email until Monday morning.” Those aren’t
bad approaches; they are just not sustainable.
is a great example—people complain about how many emails they get,
100-200-300 emails a day and they say, “If I don’t get to it over
the weekend then it’s impossible when I come in Monday morning.”
Well, my response is:” Have you ever thought to look at why you’re
getting all that email? Where’s it coming from? How many distribution
lists are you on that you need to get off of? How many people are
sending you carbon copies of emails that you have no interest in?”
Once again, let’s look at the underlying case and not just the symptoms.
third thing to remember is that you have to deal with your organization
about this as if this was a business proposal, instead of going
in threatening or begging your peers, employees, or those you work
for. Put yourself in the shoes of those most affected by your proposal,
try to anticipate the questions they’re going to ask, and show them
how this will help, not harm, their situation. Come up with solutions
and ease into this in a gradual way.
technology, for the most part, is tremendous. I wouldn’t give up
my cell phone or my laptop for anything. But we all have to become
more careful and more savvy users of that technology—and we need
to get careful and savvy now. Every report on where the technology
is going in the next 5 to 10 years projects that technology will
become even more portable, more ubiquitous, and more wireless.
if we don’t learn to become wise consumers today, we’re going to
be absolutely swamped in just a few years. This is a perfect time
to call “time out.” We need to closely look at what we’re doing
and look at how we’re using technology. Before we strap another
battery-powered gadget to our waist, we need to ask some questions
and decide whether we want to reclaim our lives for some purpose
other than answering another stack of email.
Engelbart said over 30-years ago, the real purpose of the technology
is to augment and extend what we can do, not let the technology
be what we do.
That’s a great way to put it. With only 168 hours in the week, I
sometimes think people are trying to see how much more they can
explore and how many fewer hours they can sleep. And while you may
need to do that for a certain amount of time, it becomes debilitating
and masks the underlying problem.
ended up suddenly, or not so suddenly, reinforcing the long hours,
the missed lunches, and the late nights instead of reinforcing the
behavior that should make them unnecessary.
What a wonderful place to wrap up—or begin the conversation in our
workplaces. Use the conversation around time and technology almost
as a diagnostic tool—as the magnifying lens to look at what’s really
going on. I appreciate this message, and the time you’ve spent with
us very much. Thank you.
Gordon is author of Turn
It Off: How to Unplug from the Anytime-Anywhere Office Without Disconnecting
Your Career and a well-respected consultant, author, and speaker
on telecommuting. He's worked since 1982 to implement successful
telecommuting programs for employers in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Learn more about him at www.gilgordon.com, www.turnitoff.com or by contacting
him at email@example.com.
Conner is Editor in Chief of Learning in the New Economy Magazine,
Executive Director of the Learnativity
Alliance, and a frequent speaker, writer, and executive counselor
on issues around creating new organizational forms in turbulent
times. Learn more at www.marciaconner.com or
on email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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