Can companies, or countries, make workers switch off?

Constant connectivity holds out the promise of location independence and virtual teams sourced from the best and brightest talent worldwide, but as we all know the ability to work anytime, anywhere also has its downsides. [email protected] captured these nicely recently with a fictional but all too believable run down of a normal day in the life of a knowledge worker:

It is quitting time, and you know the drill. You grab your coat and slip on your Bluetooth for a quick call with a client on the commute home. You stop at the grocery store and, while you are in line, pluck out your BlackBerry to respond to emails. You arrive home, sit down to dinner and try hard to resist the flashing red light on your smartphone. Dinner is done: Time to check your email again, clear the dishes, and sit on the couch for some TV — with your computer on your lap, of course. Just a few last emails and then it is time for bed. You will soon wake up to do it all over again tomorrow.

The constant drip of communication in what used to be known as “off hours” is the subject of a lengthy article in the publication, which offers a run down of opinion on the issue out of the Wharton School. The piece asks: what’s driving our constant need for connection? What’s it doing to us and whose problem is it?

It kicks off with a list of high-profile companies that have recently done something to tackle their employees’ information overload, including French IT company Atos, Deutsche Telekom, Google and Volkswagen. From banning email to switching of BlackBerries after hours, these companies using various techniques to force staff to power down their devices – and their brains – for a much-needed rest. Countries are even trying to get hyper-connected workers to switch off – Brazil recently passed a law requiring employers to pay overtime when they ask employees to check emails or take calls out of hours. But experts from Wharton suggest that the problem runs deeper than a tweaking rules or policies can reach.

“These policies provide important signals about what the company stands for, but often fall short as workable solutions,” says Stewart Friedman, a Wharton practice professor of management. Why? Our communication addiction goes right to the heart of our most fundamental anxieties, according to Carolyn Marvin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication:

We sometimes talk as if it’s technology that does it to us, that makes us this way. But the problem is deeper. Technology is just a very efficient way of implementing a view we already have of ourselves. That’s the notion that who we are is our ability to produce in the marketplace and constantly show that we are producing. Being a successful member of middle class society is showing our dedication to professional work and being available at all hours of the day.

And Marvin isn’t the only expert who feels that the primary combatant in the war against communication-induced burnout should be the individual, not the organization. Craig Chappelow, global portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership, who also contributes to the [email protected] article, puts the responsibility for policing boundaries squarely on the shoulders of “individual leaders,” who he says, should “model the kinds of behaviors they expect to see. It’s the boss who should be saying: ‘We’re better if we are not working all weekend long.'” And, he adds, this sort of policy should begin at home: “In my family, we have a rule: No BlackBerries until breakfast is over.”

Who do you think bears the primary responsibility for policing after-hours use of communication devices?

Image courtesy of Flickr use Orange Steeler.