In recent weeks, as I’ve delivered virtual masterclasses with employees and teams who are navigating the new terrain of #wfh, I’ve heard many guilty confessions that people are afraid to log off. Executives who are worried about not replying to emails late at night or over the weekend and team members who are nervous to turn on the ‘busy’ notification on Slack so they’re not instantly responsive. I had one employee recently confess that they abruptly ended a shower because they saw an incoming call from their colleague on their Apple watch.
Many employees feel that they need to repay the favour of being able to work remotely by being perceived to be ‘always on’. With nowhere to be and nowhere to go, some employees feel like they don’t have legitimate reasons for not being ‘digitally available’ around the clock.
Colloquially referred to as ‘work from home guilt’ (#wfhg) many employees report feeling guilty for working at home, possibly because of negative connotations that remote working was previously seen as an inferior alternative to working in an office. Some employees feel that they need to overcompensate by working extended hours for the ‘privilege’ of being able to work from home, or engage in more visible online activities to prove their merits. They want to provide tangible measures to their employers that they’re performing at home, and not slacking off. Employees perceive that being seen to be ‘always on’, provides a palpable measure of their productivity.
Why we feel the need to be ‘always on’-
There’s an assumption that if you’re not ‘aways on’ and immediately responsive to emails, communication boards like Slack or Teams, or accepting every Zoom meeting request, that you’ll be perceived to be slacking off. In the online world we look for tangible and direct ways to demonstrate our productivity (in the absence of our performance being monitored by the hours we clocked up in the office- albeit an outdated measure of productivity). The need to be ‘always on’ is even more pronounced as we navigate remote work arrangements and feel that we need to overtly convey to our colleagues and leaders that we’re working.
Why do we behave like this? One explanation is due to our biological wiring. We’re wired to be part of a tribe. One of our basic psychological drivers is the need for relational connection. We want to be part of a group. This is why we’ll emulate the digital behaviours of our colleagues. If our team leader starts to send us messages or emails over the weekend, we don’t want to be ostracised from the ‘group’ so we’ll respond. This social reciprocity can fuel the ping-pong interaction online and make employees feel like they can’t digitally disconnect.
Many employees are also concerned about job stability and terminations in these turbulent times. If you’re seen to be always on, management teams and decision-makers may look at this in a favourable light.
We’ve created a form of ‘digital presenteeism’-
It seems we have created a work from home form of ‘digital presenteeism’. We feel that our performance will be gauged based on simply being ‘seen’ to be logged on and doing things online, rather than our actual contribution. In the online work space it’s confoundingly difficult to judge who’s being effective and productive because we can’t easily assess someone’s performance- this is an inherent quality of knowledge work (different to assessing whether a builder has performed their duties). We’ve transferred the (outdated) industrialised model of productivity, based on time worked equating to our output and value. People feel incredibly pressured to be seen and to prove that they’re working and they think that a tangible way to convey this is by being seen to be switched on and instantly responsive.
In some extreme cases there are reports of bosses who’ve warned employees about slacking off- “Avoid the lure of Netflix and your phones.” read one internal staff memo. However, in some organisations the expectation that you’re always on is a little less overt. It’s the team leader who sends late-night emails to colleagues and the weekend communication board memos that subtly but powerfully convey to employees that they need to be online at all hours too.
Our productivity gains under threat from burnout-
During the health pandemic as many organisations shifted to work from home arrangements, some reports have suggested that productivity has actually increased. This is despite claims that working from home breeds distraction and complacency. In fact some organisations are reporting a productivity bump with tasks and projects being completed at a quicker rate. This improved productivity may be attributed to many factors: a decline in meetings (and lost productivity because of ‘meeting anticipation’), fewer distractions from colleagues (probably not the case if you’re at home working with kids) and the decline in commute times (being filled with additional work).
However, these productivity gains may be short lived if employees burn out because they never have a psychological break from their work. Having clear boundaries between work and personal time is vital for employees’ wellbeing and their performance. Our brains were never designed to be switched on and working 24/7. We have ancient, paleolithic brains that haven’t evolved to cope with the constant demands of the digital world. Put simply, exhausted, overloaded employees cannot perform at their best and this is the situation workplaces will find themselves in if employees feel obligated to be ‘always on’.
I’m here to send you a virtual permission slip (not the you need it), to tell you it’s okay to close off Slack or Teams or email if you need some uninterrupted focus time. We cannot multitask (you can read here about what happens in your brain when you attempt to multitask) and constantly having your attention hijacked by alerts and notifications is a sure-fire way to not only put a dent in your productivity but also be detrimental to your mental wellbeing.
How to log off without the guilt-
// Establish clear policies and expectations amongst team members– clearly define when you’ll be available according to your personal needs (do you need to support your children’s online learning?) and organisational requirements (do you need to facilitate a client meeting at a scheduled time?) When do you need to be available? We’re hard-wired for social reciprocity- this is why we start to imitate the behaviours and habits of our colleagues. Creating and adhering to firm policies and expectations will encourage your co-workers to do the same. Have a clear plan around how you can be contacted out of hours, if there’s an urgent matter requiring your attention (I give clients my phone number and tell them to call me if it is urgent because I won’t be checking email or communication tools after a set time. I’ve only ever had one client misuse my number).
// Focus on outcomes not time– adhering to industrialised models of productivity is outdated and compromises employees’ autonomy and performance. Rather than focusing on how much time they log each week, focus on outcomes, tasks and key performance indicators. Keep a running record of your daily or weekly accomplishments for your own personal records and in case you need to document your output with your leader. A focus on output, not only boosts productivity, but also supports employee wellbeing, especially if they have other demands on their time as they work from home.
// Clearly communicate your boundaries to colleagues and clients- You have permission to close Slack/Teams of whatever communication tools so you can accomplish some focused work (or tend to your kids). Give people the heads up so no one assumes you’re ‘slacking off’. Have an email auto-responder to communicate your expected response rate (you can read more here). Communicate your status to your colleagues- are you #awk (away from keyboard), having a break, or doing deep work? A report by RescueTime* found that only 10% of teams have a policy around communicating your status to colleagues. Having well-established company policies around communication expectations are vital if you want your team singing off the same hymn sheet, so everyone adopts similar digital behaviours and there are no ambiguities around response times or communication methods.
I deliver virtual masterclasses for employees and teams who want realistic, science-backed solutions to support the digital wellbeing and productivity of staff, as they work from home, or transition to a hybrid model where they work from home and in the office. Contact my team for details about the delivery of virtual masterclasses in your workplace, or for information about digital wellbeing plans I can create for workplaces.