A short while ago, Portugal became the latest country to take steps to protect the right of employees to disconnect from their work. Managers in that country now face legal penalties for texting their employees outside work hours. Portugal joins France, Germany, Italy, and several other countries in this human rights initiative known as the "Right to Disconnect".
Ahh, the good old days. Those of a certain age remember a time when the workplace was exactly that: the place where work happened. We drove to an office in the morning, spent a number of hours there doing whatever it was we did, and when it came time to leave, we left. Sure, we may have had documents in a briefcase that we spent some time with in the evening or over the weekend, but that was the extent of the intrusion work made into our home lives. We didn’t get text messages from our bosses or employees (or – for that matter – from anyone, since texting wasn’t yet a thing). We didn’t have a smartphone attached to us like an appendage; only the rarest of us had a ‘car phone’ or the giant brick of a cell phone. We didn’t check email, since there was no email to check.
It’s not just nostalgia to imagine that life was better then. When we were off work, we were truly off work, in a way almost none of us are now. Whether or not we took the opportunity to do so, we could be entirely present with our family and friends, or just ourselves. On the other hand, the ability to be constantly connected has brought positive changes as well. Remote or hybrid jobs wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for those technologies. And rather than pursuing ‘work-life balance’, most of us can now achieve a level of work-life integration that wasn’t possible in the past. Depending on the nature of the work we do, we can duck out of the office for our kid’s dentist appointment and stay connected and productive (whereas at another time we would have had to take a half-day of vacation or sick time).
So, by no means am I arguing that the clock should be turned back on connecting technology. There should, however, be a rethink about how we use it. The problem begins when the ability to be connected at all times turns into the expectation that we will be.
There was a time when – except in rare circumstances – if we left a message for someone outside of business hours, we knew that it would likely be the next day before we heard back from them. In far too many companies, the pendulum has swung to the point where people expect the same prompt response from their coworkers whether it’s 10 on a Tuesday evening, or 9 on a Saturday morning, as they would receive on Monday morning.
That’s not right. Everyone needs time away from their work. In the same way as we need sleep to recharge our batteries between periods of wakefulness, we need time in which we are not doing or thinking about our work. Happiness and enjoyment of life is part of the reason, and an important part, at that. Everyone deserves to enjoy the time we have here on earth, and that means spending some of that time at leisure. But if you’re looking for a more pragmatic reason, it goes beyond fulfillment. If we don’t get the downtime we need, ultimately our performance suffers. Our level of engagement drops, the effort we put in sags, and we become more likely to make mistakes.
What would happen, then, if every company allowed – or even encouraged – their employees to fully disconnect? If employers protected those precious evening and weekend hours, and made sure that employees were using the vacation time they had available to them? Well, in theory, we’d have happier employees doing better work. Pretty tough to argue that we don’t all want that.
Naturally, there are times in every job when being available outside traditional hours is unavoidable. Sometimes a project just has to get done in less time than usual, so someone’s got to pull overtime. Critical systems can’t be left to chance, so someone has to be on call (if not actually present) to respond if something crashes. If you have an accountant in your life, you know what tax time is like. That kind of ‘over and above’ isn’t what I’m referring to here.
As Thanksgiving came and went here in the United States, and we turn our thoughts to the many things we’re grateful for this holiday season, and spend some quality time with people close to us, let’s stage a small and quiet revolution*.
If you carry a mobile that gets your work email, power it off or leave it at home. If the device in your pocket is used for both personal and work, turn the work account off. Or at least adjust your settings so that you don’t get ‘pinged’ every time an email lands in that account. And as you take whatever time off that you have, resist the temptation to check. It’s very seductive: Just one quick peek to make sure everything’s okay. One little look won’t hurt. Right? Wrong. The moment you look, you think. And in thinking, you’re sending your brain right back to work. You might as well be sitting at your desk.
If you’re a manager of people, you have a special place in this revolution. Your job carries a weight of responsibility with it to look after your team. If you absolutely have to do some work over the holiday (and if you do, I get it – I’ve been there, too), and if that work means emailing other people, consider whether there are ways in which you can model the kind of behavior you want to see in others. If your email client allows you to schedule emails to send later, try that. If it doesn’t, think about including a note in the subject line saying *No reply required until Monday* (or something like that). That way, if your employees do see an email from you, they’ll know that you’re doing your part to protect the time they spend away from work. And for the love of Pete, unless it’s hair-on-fire urgent, maybe don’t text your employees over the holiday?
We don’t have ‘Freedom to Disconnect’ laws in this country … yet. Maybe we will someday, maybe we won’t. But we don’t need the laws to tell us that we deserve the chance to enjoy our lives outside work. We don’t need legislation to tell us we can wind down in the evening, and spend our weekends doing things we enjoy. And we certainly don’t need a law to tell us that we’ll be better employees – and have better employees – if we take that time to regroup and recharge.
Join the revolution … and happy holidays!
*If your job allows. Please don’t risk your employment – or the health and safety of others – for this revolution!