Why Companies Should Force Employees to Unplug

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It is quitting time, and you know the drill. You grab your coat and slip on your Bluetooth for a quick call with a client on the commute home. You stop at the grocery store and, while you are in line, pluck out your BlackBerry to respond to emails. You arrive home, sit down to dinner and try hard to resist the flashing red light on your smartphone. Dinner is done: Time to check your email again, clear the dishes, and sit on the couch for some TV — with your computer on your lap, of course. Just a few last emails and then it is time for bed. You will soon wake up to do it all over again tomorrow.

Welcome to the new world of work, where 5:30 p.m. is far from the end of the day. It is a world in which smartphones and laptop computers — devices that ostensibly enable us to work faster, more efficiently and more flexibly — have become 24/7 intravenous hookups to our jobs. Not only do we have difficulty maintaining personal boundaries with work because our lives and jobs are so enmeshed with technology, but we also feel intense pressure from our organizations to be “always on” and immediately responsive to calls and emails outside of normal working hours.

Some employers, however, are now attempting to flip the “off” switch. Companies from Atos, the French information technology services giant, to Deutsche Telekom to Google have recently adopted measures that force workers toward a better work-life balance, with scheduled breaks from the Internet and constant connectivity. Just last month, Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest automaker, pledged to deactivate emails on German staff BlackBerries during non-office hours. In a bid to combat employee burnout, staff at Volkswagen will be limited to only receiving emails on their devices from half an hour before they start work until half an hour after they leave for the day, and will be in blackout mode the rest of the time.

“Employers are recognizing that it is helpful for employees to have boundaries,” says Stewart Friedman, a Wharton practice professor of management. “The challenges of distraction in the digital world are massive…. The big issue is attention. In this digital age — which has really only just begun — we are starting the process of learning how to create useful boundaries that allow us to pay attention to the things that matter, when they matter.”

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These new policies signal that while corporations care about the psychological well-being of their workers, they are not totally altruistic. Evidence suggests that regular downtime leads to greater productivity. And although our addiction to digital devices is powerful — there is a reason, after all, that the BlackBerry is known as a “crackberry” — and we need some help breaking bad habits, it is not completely the responsibility of employers.

“Companies create policies that may be more symbolic than practical,” notes Friedman. “These policies provide important signals about what the company stands for, but often fall short as workable solutions. Organizations and schools need to help people learn how to manage those boundaries [between work and home] themselves, and train people to stem the deluge of data that threatens to drown us. People can learn to shut things off. It’s not easy, and it requires dedicated effort.”

Blame the BlackBerry?

In the age before laptops, email and smartphones, employees typically did not bring work home with them, apart from maybe a little paperwork here and there. But times have changed. According to a recent survey by Neverfail, a software company specializing in data protection, 83% of professional workers say they check email after work. Two-thirds say they have taken a work-related device — such as a smartphone or laptop — with them on vacation. More than 50% report that they send emails during a meal with family or friends. (A possible bright spot in the survey: The number of users who admitted to emailing during a romantic moment has decreased from 11% in 2009 to a mere 2% in 2011.)

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A separate study released earlier this month by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business found that most people consider Facebook, Twitter and email harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol. In the study, 205 adults wore devices that recorded a total of 7,827 reports about their daily desires. Desires for sleep and sex were the strongest, while desires for media and work proved the most difficult to resist.

“We sometimes talk as if it’s technology that does it to us, that makes us this way. But the problem is deeper,” says Carolyn Marvin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication who does research on the social impact of communication technologies. “Technology is just a very efficient way of implementing a view we already have of ourselves. That’s the notion that who we are is our ability to produce in the marketplace and constantly show that we are producing.”

In other words: Our addiction to digital devices has more to do with an underlying need to feel wanted and important. “Being a successful member of middle class society is showing our dedication to professional work and being available at all hours of the day,” Marvin notes.

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