My first smartphone was an employer-provided BlackBerry. This was circa 2006, so it wasn’t smart smart; it didn’t have apps, cameras, or even a color screen. But it did let me check email from anywhere.
At first, this made me feel special and successful. Instead of reading magazines in my doctor’s waiting room, I could tap away on my BlackBerry like an important business professional. I could also keep my always-overloaded inbox from getting out of control.
However, I soon realized this device wasn’t a gift; it was the end of work-life balance as I knew it. At night while I tried to sleep, the darned thing vibrated every five minutes. My supervisor—the director of marketing—emailed back and forth with the company owners until well after midnight, copying me on far more messages than I really needed to see. Then, of course, everyone hit “reply all.”
In the beginning, I felt compelled to stay up late and chime in periodically, fearing radio silence would suggest I was a slacker. But after the first few months, my BlackBerry spent most of its time at the bottom of my purse—turned off, with crumbs and dust gathering in its nooks and crannies. I still checked email at night, on weekends, and on vacation or sick days. But I refused to be a slave to that device’s incessant beeping . . . at least until a couple years later, when I bought my first iPhone and willingly enslaved myself all over again.
Don’t get me wrong: My captor provides plenty of value. Without email and mobile technology, I wouldn’t be able to write for brands around the country from the comfort of my own home. I couldn’t work with brilliant colleagues who are thousands of miles away, stay as connected with loved ones, find my way to new locations without getting lost, or ask Siri to set my alarm clock for me each night. But the same technology that helps me manage both my work and personal life also makes it hard to separate the two.
It’s difficult to balance what we can’t separate, so the concept of work-life balance has begun to seem like a thing of the past. But is that really such a bad thing? And what can we do about it?
I’m not the only one who has a love/hate relationship with technology. Many of us pine for greater balance, but technology has other plans. Smartphones, tablets, and now wearable devices give us constant access to—and more reminders about—work emails, social media, and our calendars. There’s pressure to be an always-on consumer, and to be an always-on business professional.
On the flip side, we can be “on” from anywhere. So while we’re more connected to work than ever before, many of us also have more job flexibility—which raises the question: Does technology help or hinder balance?
The jury is still out on that one.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), more than half of employed adults check work email over the weekend, before or after workdays, and when they are home sick. Yet, despite the intrusion on their personal time, participants also noted that communication technology:
Allows them to be more productive (56 percent)
Provides more flexibility (53 percent)
Makes it easier to get work done (56 percent)
Has a positive impact on their relationships with coworkers (49 percent)
David W. Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the APA, concludes:
People are often given the advice to unplug if you want to achieve work-life balance and recharge. While there’s no question that people need downtime to recover from work stress and avoid burnout, that doesn’t necessarily require a complete “digital detox.” For many people, the ability to stay connected adds value to their work and personal lives.
If technology isn’t keeping us from achieving balance, what is? A Workfront study suggests the real culprit isn’t email, but rather the people who abuse it. Only a third of participants said they have a good work-life balance, and more than half think technology has ruined the modern family dinner because bosses and clients expect immediate responses via text, email, or phone calls. Yet, when asked about factors that have a negative impact on balance, “bad bosses” topped the list, followed by complaints about inflexible work hours. “Nonstop emails” ranked eighth, with only 18 percent noting it as a problem.
As it turns out, most people don’t mind checking email during off-hours. They just want to choose when they do it, rather than being expected to drop everything and respond immediately. In other words, balance is no longer about separating work from home. It’s about having control over how we spend our time and when we switch gears.
Good or bad, email and communication technology are here to stay. As wearables go mainstream over the next few years, we’ll be even more connected to work. This is all the more reason to create some good email habits now—so that we control our inboxes, not the other way around.
Here are three ways to unplug, without looking like a slacker:
Those of us in creative jobs are never really off the clock. Especially when we like our work, ideas are constantly percolating in our brains—while we’re driving, showering, walking the dog, or even spending time with family and friends. Earlier today, I was talking to my husband when an idea for this blog post popped into my head, and I immediately forgot what I was saying. On the other hand, thoughts about my personal life often distract me from work. This is an inevitable part of thinking for a living.
Keeping our “always on” brains in check might be impossible. But our “always on” email is another thing entirely. We all need time to rest and recharge, and that’s hard to do when our phones keep reminding us of our work to-do lists.
Technology addiction can be difficult to shake, so consider creating some rules to help you unplug. For example, I often check email after work hours and during weekends, but I don’t do it from my smartphone. Instead, I log in from my computer every few hours. I also turned off the email notifications on my phone, knowing that I respond to all rings and dings like one of Pavlov’s dogs, whether I really want to or not. If an email is too important to wait a few hours, the sender can always call or text me.
Experiment and figure out a system that works for you.
To keep work from intruding on employees’ personal time, many European countries have created strict rules about after-hours email. Several US companies have also put policies in place that regulate when bosses may contact their teams, even using technology to block emails sent during certain times.
Dr. Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, argues against these tactics in her Wall Street Journal article, “How Technology Can Help Work/Life Balance“:
Some businesses try to address [balance] issues by exhorting employees to do things like triage their inbox more effectively, or turn off email after hours or when on vacation. But those fixes ignore the human factor—the anxiety that makes people feel they must keep in touch to protect their job or keep up with colleagues.
Rather than telling employees what not to do, consider how you could create a culture where employees feel it’s okay to unplug. Perhaps that’s setting a good example and letting everyone know you only check email at set times during evenings and weekends. You could also alleviate email anxiety by mandating that everyone has 24 hours to respond to team emails, so urgent messages should be handled via phone or in person.
To figure out the best method for your unique team, ask them for suggestions.
Email solutions and third-party apps provide excellent ways to prioritize and streamline email, and to limit what you see and when you see it. As Dr. Deal puts it, we can “use the same technology that complicates our lives to relieve the pressure we feel. (Think of it as sending a Terminator to stop another Terminator.)”
She suggests several strategies companies can use to make email solutions more manageable for employees, including:
Set a hard limit on “reply all”
Force senders to prioritize
Put notes on hold
Individuals can also take matters into their own hands by using apps such as Boxer, Mailbox, Apple’s VIP Inbox, and Gmail Inbox.
Balance is like success: It’s hard to define because it’s different for everyone. Figure out what works for you, and stick to it as much as possible. There will always be work to do, but you deserve a life, too.
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