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Remember when you were a teenager and your parents would take away your TV or phone privileges, when you abused them? You didn’t know when to stop. It was for your own good! A similar phenomenon seems to be happening in the workplace when it comes to mobile devices. Recently, Volkswagon decided to pull the plug on BlackBerry servers
after union worker shifts are over (non-union workers and execs still have access to their BBs). Workers reported that they felt pressure to be “always on” with email, texting, and IM all hours of the day. This is a common problem that we all have to deal with. Smart phones and the internet allow us to work whenever and wherever, and sometimes it’s hard to know when to “turn off.” To us, however, this policy seems to miss the point. Switching off email after-hours feels like that parent/teen relationship. If employees are feeling pressure to answer emails 24/7, the problem might go deeper than technology. Maybe the BlackBerry isn’t to blame?
One executive at a German company
declared a BlackBerry Free Week, except for emergencies. He said: "I don't want to have to read email just because someone is bored somewhere and wants to show he's busy." Alright, let’s unpack that very loaded statement. First, there’s an exception for emergencies. Obviously, emergencies should be handled with a phone call, not email, so there’s not pressure to be checking anything. Second, there’s a corporate culture problem if employees are trying to “show they’re busy” by sending their boss a lot of email. Third, the exec shouldn’t feel obliged to read email if he’s communicated with his team about when he’ll be responding to email again. In our view, none of these reasons necessitate a corporate policy. Just like Meeting Free Days and Casual Fridays, it’s part of a series of “for the good of the worker” type mandates that are actually just paternalistic, top-down approaches to controlling how work gets done. If employees or executives feel burnt out and unable to free themselves from their mobile devices, we would suggest the answer is not a unilateral corporate decision to pull the plug after a certain time . What’s the deeper issue here and what’s the solution? Fixing corporate culture is not really a short answer, but we’ll condense it down to a few key points.
1. Let Employees Decide
Give your employees the autonomy to decide how and when they work best. What if some of your employees like catching up on email in the evening? Maybe they’re more productive at night, rather than late afternoon.
2. Set Expectations for Communication
Should you use email for emergencies? No, that’s a really bad idea. If the expectation is set, employees and executives shouldn’t feel obliged to be checking email at all hours. Be clear about what constitutes an emergency and who to call if a true emergency comes up.
3. Reward Results, Not Time
Are you rewarding the employees who put in the most hours? Or do you simply look at the results they produce? The employee who is sending his boss a lot of email at all hours to show he is “busy” is doing so based on a reward system that favors looking busy. When the focus is on results, it doesn’t matter how much time your employees put in, or how busy they appear.
4. Plan for Down Time If you won’t be responding to email for a week, plan in advance and communicate with your team about when you will be responding again. Let your team know that they can do the same: “Hey, I’m not going to respond to email this week. I’ve got my work done and I’ve planned for emergencies. Just know that if you email me, I’m not going respond until [date].” That seems so much more practical than shutting down servers and restricting access for everyone. Across-the-board policies that dictate how and when employees should or should not be doing their work undermine creativity and productivity. These policies take autonomy and responsibility away from the employee. They cause headaches for managers and executives. They lead to more and more rules about how work should be done, and they totally miss the point: We’re all adults.
What do you think? Is this kind of policy really going to fix the “always on” problem? What corporate policies do you think miss the point?