The pandemic reduced our commute to a short stroll from the bedroom to the study, but we paid the price for this so-called convenience. The blurring of lines between work and home left most of us working longer hours. This ‘always on’ work culture has renewed calls for the right to disconnect across the globe – something the French Government legislated back in 2016. The likes of New York City, India, Australia, and the Netherlands have all proposed their own versions of the French bill.
The central idea behind the right to disconnect is that employees don’t have to take calls or read emails after work hours.
It’s a well-intentioned proposal, buoyed on by increasing workplace stress. A report by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety) found that workplace stress is attributable to excessive workload, people issues, and work-life balance conflicts.
But the right to disconnect is a half-baked solution to a poorly diagnosed problem, one that could do more harm than good.
The Modern Workplace
The way most organizations operate anchors to factory room floors of the past, as managers attempt to draw a straight line between hours and output.
But when it comes to knowledge work, in contrast to the algorithmic work of the industrial age, it’s not the number of hours that matter, but the quality of attention during those hours.
Today’s typical organization sabotages that attention, challenging our ability to do deep, focused work. A culture of consensus-seeking, hyper-responsiveness, and process paralysis has overwhelmed knowledge workers the world over.
This has left us busy, crazy busy, with little to show for it but an increased workload and longer hours, as we scramble to keep up with whatever it was we were supposed to be doing before our day got hijacked by Zoom calls and emails.
Despite the fact that the upper limit for deep, focused work is about four hours,the average knowledge worker is lucky to get in a solitary hour of uninterrupted attention per day.
And it boils down to the way we work, which, like most important things in life, we’ve never really learned how to do effectively.
As Cal Newport noted in his bestselling book, A World Without Email, the advent of email, while convenient, sent office communications soaring. He wrote that once IBM introduced email, the amount of communication at Big Blue increased by a factor of six within a single week.
Instead of cultivating time to focus on doing what we were hired to do – apply our cognition towards creating value, we became increasingly spellbound by our inboxes. Focusing on any one task for longer than a few minutes suddenly became a Herculean task, as our brains became wired to check and respond to email, basking in the tiny dopamine hits that came with it.
And now, we’re more distracted than ever. Research from Stanford University reports that people today switch screens, on average, every 19 seconds. SaaS company, RescueTime, found that the longest uninterrupted interval of work for their users, where they didn’t switch screens, was no more than 40 minutes. The most common length clocked in at just 20 minutes.
Given that it takes us about 23 minutes to get back in the zone after switching tasks, and switching depletes our cognitive energy faster as our brainsreorient around a new context, we find ourselves amid a different kind of global epidemic, one that robs us of our collective ability to focus and create value for the world.
The Typical Workday
Today’s typical employee can expect a day full of hour-long, back-to-back meetings and Zoom calls, unplanned interruptions, the relentless pursuit of inbox zero, and hundreds of task switches.
Research by Adobe finds that employees spend an average of six hours per day on email. Another study finds that the average employee checks email 74 times a day, or once every six minutes.
The advent of instant messaging tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams were supposed to save us from the onslaught of email, and they did. Slack themselves found that the platform reduced emails by 48.6%, but their report conveniently neglected to mention that those emails were typically replaced with Slack messages. As Sarah Peck, founder of executive director of Startup Pregnant, told VOX, “we’re just moving email to another place, and it’s less searchable”.
Today, the typical Slack user spends over 10 hours a day logged in, sending more than 200 messages per week. According to Time Is, power users of the platform send more than 1,000 messages per day.
Instant messaging tools simply fed the attention hijacking monster, leaving well-educated executives on six-figure salaries playing day-long games of whac-a-mole.
The Real Problem with Work
In 1944, the CIA issued the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, which provided advice on how to sabotage, delay and impair the progress of work. Curiously, many of its suggestions could pass for the status quo at most of today’s organizations. Insist on doing everything through channels.
When possible, refer all matters to committees for further study and consideration.
Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the advisability of that decision.
Be worried about the propriety of any decision.
Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant matters.
Multiply procedures and clearances.
Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can.
Longer hours are a by-product of how we work.
Today, centralized decision-making, outsourced accountability, back-to-back meetings, the use of Reply All, debilitating processes and procedures, and of course, micro-management all run havoc on the knowledge worker’s ability to get things done.
The fact that managers were asking “How do you build trust with remote teams?” during the pandemic said a lot about the innate lack of trust endemic in most organizations, manifest by the abovementioned practices.
Right to Disconnect Could Do More Harm Than Good
Legislation can only achieve so much.
France has been running the right to disconnect experiment for five years, but the jury is still out on its impact. I’ve got numerous business associates in France who routinely complain about being ‘crazy busy’ and working excessive hours.
As Micha Sprinz, marketing communications executive at Dropbox France, said, “more often than not, when you work for an international company, and across timezones, you’re still compelled to work beyond 6:00pm”.
Feeling compelled to work beyond 6:00pm is a reflection of workplace culture. In competitive, high-performance workplace, laws to the contrary are unlikely to change this.
My time in management consulting for powerhouses such as EY and KPMG showed me that contracted work hours mean little to nothing. I, too, along with thousands of my colleagues, felt compelled to work beyond my contracted hours – something professional services institutions have come under fire for in recent years.
Meanwhile, is Government best-placed to legislate better ways of working? Government departments and agencies across the globe are notorious for being the antithesis of what we might consider efficiency and effectiveness at work, and the butt of jokes when it comes to the allocation of taxpayer dollars.
The thing about laws is that they exist to establish standards of behavior. But most of us inherently know not to do bad things. Laws protect us from the few who can’t help themselves from doing said bad things.
But just as it is far more humane to educate and rehabilitate criminals than lock them away and throw away the key, managers too, who are consciously or unconsciously fuelling toxic work cultures, would benefit from education instead of legislation.
The misdirected focus on legislating work could indeed be a missed opportunity to redesign the way we work for the better, something that can positively impact the wellbeing of both employees and bottom lines.
Calling it a day at 6:00pm won’t address what we do between 8:00am and 6:00pm, something that has devolved into a comedy of Zoom calls, emails, and cat videos, leaving people unfulfilled and unaccomplished come the day’s end.
Educate, Don’t Legislate
So what kind of values and work practices should said education be espousing?
Ultimately, a culture where people are empowered to harness their attention to get stuff done, free from the shackles of real-time communication that robs people of their agency to work how it best suits them.
This requires a shift from real-time communication and hours, to asynchronous communication and outcomes.
“I’ll get to it when it suits me” is at the core of asynchronous communication, and it underpins the way today’s progressive organizations – Automattic, Atlassian, and Spotify – get things done.
Asynchronous communication promotes uninterrupted stretches of time where people can actually do deep, focused work. This not only results in a more rewarding experience of work, but also shorter hours, thanks to the liberation of our cognition to focus on high-value tasks, instead of yet another mind numbing 10-person status update via Zoom.
The truth is most things simply don’t require an immediate response.
The truth is we waste most of our time at work on low-value activities.
The truth is meetings shouldn’t be used merely to communicate information.
The truth is email and instant messaging are overrated and overused.
Instead of email and Slack, asynchronous teams rely mostly on project management task boards to communicate.
Doing so gives teams a powerful alternative to assign work, get status updates, and manage workflows, all without the need for real-time input from colleagues. It liberates people from cognitively debilitating task switching, and gives employees the freedom to decide how, where and when they work, rather than handing over that decision to the Government.
As Dropbox’s Héloïse Boungnasith told Work in Progress, “Each individual must be free to work the way that makes the most sense for them. For instance, if I had kids, I would prefer to leave work early and pick them up from school, spend time with them, and start working again later during the day. How can you do that if you’re not supposed to access your emails after 6:00 pm?”
If we truly care about the emotional wellbeing of our people, then changing how we work, rather than the hours we work, is key to a more rewarding experience of work, one that leaves us energized and free to fully enjoy our time away from it.