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Turn It Off: How to Unplug from the Anytime-Anywhere Office Without Disconnecting Your Career. Gil Gordon. (Three Rivers Press, 2001).

Also, see the Turn It Off Website.

Gil Gordon’s website

I 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 Your Career.

Gordon 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, too.

Conner: What do leaders need to learn around seeking some balance and turning off their technology?

Gordon: 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 for them.

Many 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.

Conner: What should leaders do?

Gordon: 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.

If 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.

When 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.

Conner: 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?

Gordon: 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.

Conner: 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.

Gordon: 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?”

The 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.

I 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.

Conner: 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?

Gordon: 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.

When 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.

Maybe 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.

Conner: Shouldn’t people learn (or relearn) the value of quietness too?

Gordon: 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.

Conner: 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.

Gordon: 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.

Another 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 it faster.

Many 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.

Conner: 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, volunteer firefighters...

Gordon: 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.

The 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.

Conner: Is this “on-call” situation ever warranted in business?

Gordon: 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.

Conner: Speaking of day-to-day, where does some of this cross over into issues of telecommuting?

Gordon: 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.

When 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.

Conner: So, where should people, tempted by the technology to work around the clock, start?

Gordon: 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.

Secondly, 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.

Email 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.

The 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.

The 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.

So, 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.

Conner: As Doug 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.

Gordon: 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.

We’ve 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.

Conner: 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.

Gil 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 gil@gilgordon.com

Marcia 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 marcia@linezine.com.

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