April 2, 2012. By Ndubuisi Ekekwe contributed to hbr.org
Mobile devices have exacerbated an always-on work culture where employees work anytime, anywhere. They’ve contributed to the blurred distinction between when you’re “on the clock” and when you’re not. Service industry professionals are especially tethered to these devices. There’s an assumption that using smart devices boosts productivity, since they allow us to work constantly. But, we’re also jeopardizing long-term productivity by eliminating predictable time off that ensures balance in our lives. Is the obsession of regularly checking email really helping anyone’s bottom line? Are the unrealistic expectations these devices facilitate not setting staff up for burnout?
From my experience, this hyper-connectivity carries a cost to organizational productivity. Many months ago, in my Africa-based startup, my top managers decided to adopt a business engagement process where customers and staff could reach them 24/7. There was a perception that if a customer or a colleague needed something and couldn’t get it immediately, the firm would not be taken seriously. The staff was under intense pressure to be available whenever anyone called — it was simply expected. Six months later, we noticed that customer complaints were actually up, and team morale was down.
So, why were we spoiling dinner time for each other with calls that could have waited until the next business day?
In a forthcoming book, “Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24-7 Habit and Change the Way You Work,” Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow provides insights on this fraught relationship with smart devices. In an experiment that focused on mandating time off for consultants for at least one night per week, she noticed that — over time — their work lives improved, and they were largely more productive. For the research subjects who followed her policy of disconnecting from work at night, 78% said that they “feel satisfied” with their jobs, compared to the group of people who ignored the policy, where only 49% noted the same sense of satisfaction. Her results show that we’re creating a self-perpetuating perception that working faster is better — even when speed may not be necessary.
The reality is that business processes have been changed by technology. Competition is now global and companies need to act fast to survive. Accordingly, we have institutionalized a system where customers and staff expect everyone to be always-connected. And with that, 24/7 speed has become a key performance metric. The impetus to examine whether what we do requires 24/7 responsiveness is overlooked. We all work longer and harder, despite the possibility that we could work better. But since everyone is doing it, it’s considered acceptable.
But, here’s the thing: Business will not collapse if we don’t respond to e-mail at 11 PM. Waiting until 9 AM has plenty of benefits that arguably outweigh the benefits of speed, such as giving ourselves an opportunity to think through the problem and provide a better idea that customers will appreciate. Instead of acquiescing to the knee-jerk reflex of responding to every incoming message, we should put these devices in their place — that is, to serve us, and not the other way around.
Companies need to help employees unplug. (Of course, every business is unique, and must take its own processes into consideration. But for most companies, giving employees predictable time off will not hurt the bottom line.) In my own firm, when we noticed that always-on was not producing better results, we phased it out of our culture. A policy was instituted that encouraged everyone to respect time off, and discouraged people from sending unnecessary emails and making distracting calls after hours. It’s a system that works if all of the team members commit to it. Over time, we’ve seen a more motivated team that comes to work ready for business, and goes home to get rejuvenated. They work smarter, not blindly faster. And morale is higher.
Give it a try in your own company. As a trial, talk to your team and agree to shutdown tonight. I’m confident that you’ll all feel the benefits in the morning.