A couple of years ago, I coached a legal counsel who worked for a French corporation. She reported sleeping problems. When I asked what her evening routine looks like, she described that before putting out the bed light, she’d check her e-mail and would often find a message from her boss. Wonder what kept her brain active at night?
Dutch Psychologist Michelle van Laethem from the University of Amsterdam has researched the relationship between availability through smartphone and engagement at work.
Picture this: you are relaxing at home after a busy day’s work.
Your smartphone beeps and lights up. Do you check your messages or do you leave it? If you decide to read the message, do you respond to it or leave it until the next morning to deal with?
‘Workplace tele-pressure’ is the term that was coined in 2014 to indicate the perceived pressure to respond quickly to work related messages.
Suppose you receive a message from a colleague, saying ‘can you give me a call?’, would you call her straight away? Also, if this means you lose your concentration for the task at hand? If you answered yes to both of the above questions, chances are you are prone to workplace tele-pressure.
Intuitively, we may have the impression that people who are constantly online and respond to messages almost night and day are highly committed to the organisation, work hard and are in a state of ‘flow’.
Psychologist van Leathem found the opposite to be true in her research: heavy smartphone users turned out to be less engaged in their work than moderate users. The heavy users feel less energized and less committed than those who limit their online time to working hours.
This may be due to 3 factors:
- The frequent interruptions by messages etc, which has a neurological impact
- The fact that they simply have less time to restore their mental and physical energy
- The self- perception of importance: ‘I am needed and it cannot wait’.
The right to be unreachable.
Jonathan Crary (Columbia University) says in the Guardian newspaper that ‘wherever one works now, it’s imperative that one fully internalises the demand for maximum performance regardless of the toll it might take on one’s health, family or sanity. One is expected to fashion one’s existence as something perpetually flexible and adaptable. No matter what hours or arrangements an employee has, the expectation still seems to be, that all workers are constantly available.’
As a response to this pressure on workers, both governments and corporations have taken initiatives. In 2017, the ‘El Khomri’ law was introduced in France, which proposes every employee contract must include a negotiation of obligations required of an employee regarding how connected they are outside of office hours.
The French law is reasonably vague and doesn’t restrict after-hours work communication, but obliges organizations to negotiate these terms clearly with prospective employees. Italy has also recently incorporated a very similar right to disconnect law and in the Netherlands the Social Democratic party is putting it on the agenda.
In the corporate environment, Volkswagen was first in implementing a company-wide freeze on emails back in 2012. The company set its internal servers to not route email to individual accounts.
The German automaker Daimler instituted an even more dramatic program, deleting all incoming emails to an individual when they are on holiday. The system is designed to send a reply to all incoming emails when a person is on holiday notifying the sender that they are not in the office, and that the email will be deleted. The idea is that not only will a holiday be left undisrupted, but the worker can confidently return to work without the looming stress of a packed inbox (Fortune.com).
Psychologist van Laethem questions this practice as it decreases the autonomy of employees, an essential source of work satisfaction. Also, she argues that people are creative enough to bypass the system if they really want to continue their work-related communication.
Whatever happened to the times when we worked ‘9 to 5’, as pictured in the movie with that title? Is this good or bad?
How to resist workplace tele-pressure?
Typically 9 out of 10 things on your smartphone can wait, unless you work for the fire brigade or are in the emergency room at the hospital. If there is a true emergency, people will do their best to reach you.
If you really need to concentrate on a task such as a meeting, preparing a document or brainstorming ideas, switch off your devices for the duration of the activity. Use flight mode on your mobile, for instance.
Allocate one or more time slots each day when you will respond to messages (e-mail, team collaboration software messages, chats and others); preferably at moments when your energy is a bit lower.
Reserve your mental peak moments for work that is more complex and requires your full brain power. This tends to be task that are pro-active (important matters) rather than reactive (responding to other people’s messages and requests). Tell people when you ‘do’ your messages each day so they know when they can expect an answer from you.
Use the subject line of an e-mail to indicate whether you expect a quick answer or not.
Agree an etiquette with your team and peers about how you communicate and which response time is acceptable. E-mail and App messaging were designed as a-synchronous tools, in contract to telephone for instance, so there is always a delay in response time. How much delay is acceptable and productive in your team needs to be explicitly discussed as expectations differ across geographical and organisational cultures.
Being effective at work in a complex, international environment start with taking care of self.
If a person does not feel physically or mentally fit, (s)he is less able to contribute in a professional context. We all know –but often neglect- the basic 4: sleep, nutrition, exercise and relaxation. Finding a personal strategy to deal with tele-pressure is an important part of staying healthy and productive.
At Nomadic IBP, we train virtual teams in working more effectively together; and finding an equilibrium between productivity and job satisfaction is an important part of what we teach. If you want to know more about the different courses that we offer for those that want to do more in the virtual world, check out our calendar.
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