don’t know when I began working in the evenings, on weekends,
or in the car on a long family vacation. I suspect it was about
the time we started using email at work and I received my first
laptop computer. Even now, without the technical gadgetry I sometimes
leave behind, the habit of working around the clock has worn such
a deep rut in my personal time that I need to climb out of it—quickly.
Thankfully, Gil Gordon, who I first learned of when researching
the field of telecommuting, is here to help. He’s written a strikingly
cogent book, with a title that immediately gets under any modern-day
worker’s skin, Turn
It Off: How to Unplug from the Anytime-Anywhere Office Without
Disconnecting Your Career.
spent time with me this summer (after he’d just returned from
a gadget-free vacation) talking about what we, as leaders, can
do to create an environment where people aren’t expected to be
on a technology-leash 24-hours a day, either by circumstance or
by habit. He is by no means anti-technology, anti-work, or anti-gadget.
Instead, he calls on us to be savvy in our use and reliance on
portable devises. They should aid our situation, not mask what
might really be going on. Since reading his book and conducting
this interview, I’ve made substantial changes in my attitudes
and practices around time and technology and have sustained these
changes through difficult times. My hope is that they can offer
you some answers and perspective in your anytime-anywhere office
that will help you be a better you, too.
What do leaders need to learn around seeking some balance and
turning off their technology?
Leaders face a couple of different issues than non-leaders around
balance and technology. Not only do leaders have to look at balance
in their own lives, but they also have to decide what kind of
balance they want to afford their employees. And, what kind of
a role-model do they set and what kind of behaviors do they want
to try to reinforce or extinguish (as managers and leaders always
do), either deliberately or almost unconsciously? Their role is
really a double one. I’m not trying to prescribe, “thou shall
not work on weekends, or at night or on vacations” and that “thou
shall have a perfect ten foot high wall between work and the rest
of your life.” I really want people to look in the mirror at the
life they’re living and decide for themselves if the portability
of office work has created a problem for them.
people genuinely believe that if they weren’t able to check their
email on vacation, they might not be able to take a vacation.
And we might bemoan that situation, but if that’s how they see
it then, for them, that’s a workable solution. The same thing
holds true for leaders: that’s why it’s just as bad for a senior
executive to issue a memo saying, “Effective immediately: The
company email system will be shut down on weekends so you can
spend time with your families and on your hobbies.” That’s just
as bad as autocratically expecting everybody to check their email
What should leaders do?
My first manager when I got out of graduate school and joined
the corporate world had a number of great aphorisms and sayings.
One of them was, “Management expects, what management inspects.”
In other words, if you really want to find out what a manager
holds near and dear to his or her heart, all you have to do is
look at what they pay attention to. If your boss is away on vacation
for a week and comes back, what’s the first project or first issue
you are asked about on Monday morning? That will tell you quite
clearly what’s on top on that person’s priority list.
we apply that rule to the issues of boundaries and values between
work and the rest of life, certainly we can look to the leader’s
role. And I mean all the leaders in your organization, not just
the big boss. For example, do leaders (those setting an example)
routinely come to the office (or do work at home) at times most
people would consider to be more personal time than work time?
If that’s the case, you should ask the question, “Is this person
working in a way that may harm their performance in the long term?”
Going beyond words and platitudes, trying to manage this kind
of behavior is vital to your organization's success. The employee
who, for example, comes home after putting in a full week to then
work a full weekend and is always being paged or expected to check
voice mail several times a weekend—that person comes back in Monday
probably feeling less rested and less capable than he or she did
when they left Friday afternoon. The same thing is true many times
over if it happens over the course of a vacation.
employers subtly or explicitly require people to be connected
in this way, out of the office and out of normal work hours, it
may appear that these employers are doing so in the name of increased
productivity and efficiency. That’s only a short-term gain at
best. Every time a person is on call over the weekend or during
vacation, solving critical business problems, you’re chipping
away just a little bit more of that person’s overall performance
and ability to contribute to the organization. I think that’s
a message that senior leaders and managers must learn.
Absolutely. To help them learn that, what benefits does the organization
receive by encouraging and nurturing people to feel that they
can choose their time wisely and that they can actually take time
off to do what’s important?
The benefits to an organization are that people work with greater
intensity, greater concentration, with less resentment, and a
lot less sense of begrudging this electronic leash. What’s at
the heart of your question, in a way, is the confusion we see
in so many arenas between whether we’re paying people for hours
or presence versus paying them for output or product. This is
the last vestige of the transformation from the factory and farm
era into the knowledge age. Just as it was true in the factory
and the farm that more hours were better, we too quickly assume
that the same is true for the knowledge worker—but it’s not. Manager’s
need to realize that everything they may be doing to try to improve
performance may actually backfire over the long term.
I’ve known many people who believe that working long hours was
the same as working smart. That’s clearly not the case. This reminds
me of my pet hamster from childhood. She was always working, but
didn’t get where she wanted to go.
It is a lot like the hamster and the wheel in the cage. The most
interesting thing that I’ve seen over the years in my work with
telecommuting and now more recently with Turn
It Off, is that asking these kinds of questions is long overdue
and may very likely uncover some hidden problems. Let me give
you an example. If you say to one of your employees “I need you
to be available in case I page you or a customer has some questions
over the weekend,” maybe this is an opportunity for your employee
to say, “Wait a minute. Why are we getting all these calls on
weekends from customers? If you’re expecting true emergencies,
or things to happen that require our infinite attention, why aren’t
we working to prevent these situations?”
solution may be to give customers direct contact to information
currently only on the company’s intranet so they can see where
their orders are in shipping. Another solution may be to do some
training for the customers so they get the knowledge they need
instead of always looking at the person that the company provides
for a stopgap solution. Potentially, a number of other things
can really eliminate the motivation for that weekend call to begin
think asking people to work all the time is a thinly disguised
indication of the long overdue need for business process redesign
. If anything, I think the availability and the portability of
the technology, in a very subtle way, makes it easier for us to
be sloppy in how we run our organizations. It’s just as in telecommuting
where, if a manger knows that he or she is only going to see a
subordinate maybe twice a week and then speak on the phone the
rest of the time, that manager tends to get a lot more organized
about to-do lists and expectations. Well the same thing with this.
If we decide to build boundaries around work, then maybe that
will motivate us to find ways to eliminate things that would normally
be beyond those boundaries. This should motivate those kinds of
Well in some ways you’re saying to use the way you look at the
hours you work as a way to diagnose what’s really going on and
look for a clearer way of learning how to improve your business.
Other things we should learn?
That’s right. One of the reasons I think a lot of people are working
the kinds of hours they are and checking their emails on vacations
(and all the other stuff) is that perhaps they have forgotten
how to do nothing. They’ve forgotten how to spend quality time
with their significant others or their family members or even
by themselves. They’re so used to sneaking work in between phone
calls and between soccer practices that they keep doing it.
we have the luxury of three hours together with our kids, with
our spouse, or on our own, we don’t know what to do with it. So,
we gravitate back to the laptop or the cell-phone just because
that’s what we are so accustomed to doing. Also, I ask people
when I do seminars about the book, if I waved a magic wand and
gave you five more hours a week to use for whatever you want—and
you couldn’t use it for work—would you know what to do with it?
And almost always I get a sea of blank faces staring back at me.
As a result, I talk about this in the book. I urge people to set-up,
just like a work to-do list, a personal to-do list.
you want to resurrect a long-standing desire to learn Italian
or maybe you want to become more of a wine expert or you want
to learn how to become a dessert chef or just sit around and read
a good novel. In some ways, we’ve become unaccustomed to and uncomfortable
with idleness; we have this gravitational pull to get back to
the work, and because the work is so portable, it’s very easy.
Now I’m not, by any means, encouraging nationwide slothfulness
or the return to a thirty-hour week or anything else that would
smack of being anti-work. All I’m saying is that we may just have
to learn, because we’ve pushed ourselves so much in the other
direction, how to value a little bit of free time.
Shouldn’t people learn (or relearn) the value of quietness too?
Absolutely. We’ve gotten so used to being engaged in either talking
to people, or being on the phone, or email, or now instant messaging.
That’s one of the things what worries me about the technology;
that it’s becoming immediate and so ubiquitous that people may
be slowly losing the ability to be quiet or tolerate quiet. Again,
I always have to be careful when I say something like that; I
don’t want to be misinterpreted as suggesting that technology
is bad. I’m just saying that, as is often the case, what goes
on in business mirrors what’s going on in the rest of society
and many people are deprived of and miss other types of experiences.
People who’ve managed to carve out some time for themselves (and
their families) really begin to treasure and value it.
It’s clear to me you are not proposing being extreme in any way.
If anything, I think what you’re advocating for is balance. When
we are not working all the time, we’re not doing nothing all the
time—we’re finding appropriate and applicable use of that time
to refresh and to improve our ability to think clearly and thoughtfully.
Right. And I think that whether or not that appears to be balanced,
integrated, or whatever the word is, may be irrelevant. It’s how
the individual feels. I urge people to take a careful look at
not only how they feel, but also what kind of feedback they’re
getting from their family and friends about how their time is
being spent. Many people, for whatever reason, just thrive on
that activity level and that’s great. They would be as frustrated
with being unable to access email over the weekend, as somebody
who feels they always must do it.
factor that’s becoming more relevant every day is the state of
the economy: so many employers going to layoffs, downsizing, slow-downs,
and trying to do more with less. As a result, you’ve got what
some people call “survivor syndrome.” The people left on the job,
who have not received a pink slip, now have their own work plus
maybe some other person’s work to do and they’ve expected to do
all of it faster.
people look at this “turn it off” concept and say, “Yes I understand,
I buy into it, but how in heavens name could I possibly put this
into practice when I’m afraid that if I did I might be the recipient
of one of the next round of pink slips?” And I think the answer
to that is very simple. You have to be judicious in how you use
it. The person who finds himself on call seven days a week should
not go into the boss’s office on Monday morning, shut the door,
slam his fist on the desk, and say, “I’ve had it. I’m not going
pick up my phone on weekends, I’m not going to check my email
at all from Friday night to Monday morning.” That’s too extreme,
like jumping off a cliff. People may have to implement these changes
in a more tiered, slow way. Work instead on figuring out ways
to ease in the changes at a pace those around you can accept even
in these crazy times.
That also brings up the issue of appropriateness. People have
been hired for certain jobs knowing they would have to be on a
pager. For instance, doctors or people who run time-sensitive
data centers, volunteer firefighters...
Absolutely. A growing number of jobs have begun to look like neurosurgery.
Certainly there are medical professionals whose jobs deal with
life and death and who are the ones most accustomed to this; they
know what comes with the territory. A growing number of people
in the business world have work that also seems to be critical.
There are two important differences however. One is the point
you made, which is the distinction between whether you signed
on knowing this was going to be a condition of employment versus
whether it was something that just sort of crept in that you never
second thing is that, unlike the case where it’s the neurosurgeon
who has to be on call to be able to perform the neurosurgery,
in the business world I’m just not convinced that many of things
that look like crises and that call for that indispensable person
are really that way. People tend to make themselves indispensable.
Leaders and senior managers in organizations allow far too much
of that to happen and don’t encourage anywhere enough cross-training
and developing backup strength. It’s wonderful to have an employee
who’s highly trained and very much in demand (and you sort of
feel that your organization could not function without that person
and that’s why they have to be on call 24 hours a day) but what
happens if the proverbial truck hits that person? If I were a
senior leader, I would be petrified to see situations where so
much of our ability to continue as an enterprise rested in the
hands of a small handful of people. It’s simply not good management
or good leadership. To say that we can reach them 24 hours a day,
because they’re carrying all of these wireless gadgets, is not
the solution. That, in fact, makes it worse rather than better.
Is this “on-call” situation ever warranted in business?
Look at a situation, for example, where two big companies are
considering a merger. There must be dozens, if not hundreds, of
people on both sides of those deals who are literally on call
7 days a week, 24 hours a day, just because of the complexity
of pulling off a deal like that. Even though those people may
look for the next job that does not have them electronically attached,
for now their lifestyle may be very much like that of the neurosurgeon.
Here again, I think there’s a difference between people who are
in that situation temporarily—because mergers like that either
happen or they don’t (and that intense work period ends)—versus
somebody for whom this is going to continue, month after month
after month. Most people can handle episodic bursts, but they
have problems with it when it becomes a day in and day out part
of the routine.
Speaking of day-to-day, where does some of this cross over into
issues of telecommuting?
Well certainly the people telecommuting, working at home one to
three days a week (on average), have to face this more than the
typical office worker. When you, in the words of Paul
and Sarah Edwards, “work and live under the same roof,” you’re
working literally a few steps down the hallway from where you
you’re working in an office, no matter how late you work and how
tough a day you have, eventually you’re going to leave
that office. And even with all the technology, that physical separation
does make a difference. But when you’re telecommuting, and especially
if your path from the living room to the bedroom takes you past
the spare bedroom where your home office is set up, you look in
there and can see the message light on the answering machine blinking.
It’s just that much harder to separate work and home life. But,
one lesson we’ve learned from successful telecommuters is how
to turn it off at times. The whole notion of shutting the door,
both literally and figuratively, on the work at the end of the
day is important.. I’ve know countless telecommuters over the
last 20 years who were able to pursue a long lost hobby, do a
lot of volunteer work, or simply be more involved as a parent
without losing a beat of their work. They did this by simply getting
out of that mandated run-to-the-office every day routine.
So, where should people, tempted by the technology to work around
the clock, start?
First, this whole process has to begin with self-assessment. You
cannot be pushed into turning it off just because somebody else
tells you you’re working too long or too hard. That’s useful data,
but you have to look in the mirror and at what you’re putting
into the job, at what you’re getting out of it, and decide whether
or not this is a problem to you. That’s always a first step.
it is crucial to look beyond the symptoms and look for the underlying
problems so that you don’t take a simplistic approach like saying,
“I’m just not going to answer my pager this weekend,” or “I’m
simply not going to check my email until Monday morning.” Those
aren’t bad approaches; they are just not sustainable.
is a great example—people complain about how many emails they
get, 100-200-300 emails a day and they say, “If I don’t get to
it over the weekend then it’s impossible when I come in Monday
morning.” Well, my response is:” Have you ever thought to look
at why you’re getting all that email? Where’s it coming from?
How many distribution lists are you on that you need to get off
of? How many people are sending you carbon copies of emails that
you have no interest in?” Once again, let’s look at the underlying
case and not just the symptoms.
third thing to remember is that you have to deal with your organization
about this as if this was a business proposal, instead of going
in threatening or begging your peers, employees, or those you
work for. Put yourself in the shoes of those most affected by
your proposal, try to anticipate the questions they’re going to
ask, and show them how this will help, not harm, their situation.
Come up with solutions and ease into this in a gradual way.
technology, for the most part, is tremendous. I wouldn’t give
up my cell phone or my laptop for anything. But we all have to
become more careful and more savvy users of that technology—and
we need to get careful and savvy now. Every report on where the
technology is going in the next 5 to 10 years projects that technology
will become even more portable, more ubiquitous, and more wireless.
if we don’t learn to become wise consumers today, we’re going
to be absolutely swamped in just a few years. This is a perfect
time to call “time out.” We need to closely look at what we’re
doing and look at how we’re using technology. Before we strap
another battery-powered gadget to our waist, we need to ask some
questions and decide whether we want to reclaim our lives for
some purpose other than answering another stack of email.
Engelbart said over 30-years ago, the real purpose of the
technology is to augment and extend what we can do, not let the
technology be what we do.
That’s a great way to put it. With only 168 hours in the week,
I sometimes think people are trying to see how much more they
can explore and how many fewer hours they can sleep. And while
you may need to do that for a certain amount of time, it becomes
debilitating and masks the underlying problem.
ended up suddenly, or not so suddenly, reinforcing the long hours,
the missed lunches, and the late nights instead of reinforcing
the behavior that should make them unnecessary.
What a wonderful place to wrap up—or begin the conversation in
our workplaces. Use the conversation around time and technology
almost as a diagnostic tool—as the magnifying lens to look at
what’s really going on. I appreciate this message, and the time
you’ve spent with us very much. Thank you.
Gordon is author of Turn
It Off: How to Unplug from the Anytime-Anywhere Office Without
Disconnecting Your Career and a well-respected consultant,
author, and speaker on telecommuting. He's worked since 1982 to
implement successful telecommuting programs for employers in the
U.S. and elsewhere. Learn more about him at www.gilgordon.com, www.turnitoff.com or by contacting
him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Conner is Editor in Chief of Learning in the New Economy Magazine,
Executive Director of the Learnativity
Alliance, and a frequent speaker, writer, and executive counselor
on issues around creating new organizational forms in turbulent
times. Learn more at www.marciaconner.com or
on email at email@example.com.
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