A few years ago, I started a new job. On my first day, a co-worker was helping me set up my new work email account on my phone. As we were making polite chit-chat about the office and what I could expect, he made this comment, “everyone is pretty much always available.” It was clear he wanted to make sure that I knew that there was an expectation for me to be “always available” as well. Like anyone else, for as long as I’ve owned a smartphone, I’ve been conditioned to be checking my work email from home. But, this was something different. I quickly picked up on the office culture and the “always connected” attitude it bred. If you weren’t staying in the office past 8:00 PM, even with no particularly urgent task to complete or not responsive to emails at 10:00 PM or on the weekend, you weren’t working hard enough.
The mounting expectations for employees to be “always on”, wasn’t unique to my job. It’s been a growing problem in corporate life since the first days of the Blackberry and iPhone. The idea that an employee isn’t working hard enough if they aren’t connected 24/7 is counterproductive. Most studies on the subject show that constant screen time and digital consumption is hurting us both physically and mentally. It’s gone so far that one can now pay thousands of dollars to go on a Digital Detox Retreat. That’s right, just like drugs or alcohol we now need to detox ourselves from our digital lives.
CEO’s like Tim Cook and Mass Mutual’s Roger Crandall have been singing the praises of Digital Detox Retreats recently. They claim that going on these retreats to un-plug will ultimately be to the benefit of their companies as a whole. So after more than ten years of these corporate leaders instilling the “always connected” culture we are in, they are now on the work/life balance bandwagon. Though it’s interesting that they are the ones on the luxury retreats, while we can assume their employees are back in the grind at the office.
Do we think that expensive camping trips can solve the more significant issues in the digital culture that we’ve created? These retreats seem more like a way to make money off of a real problem in today’s professional world than a solution to it. CEO’s and leaders need to make significant shifts in corporate policy and unwritten expectations to even hope to see a change. Employees need to start taking a stand and stop being afraid that if they put their phone down after hours, their coworkers and employers will see them as less valuable.
Instead of sinking thousands into an unplugged weekend away, start with setting limits for yourself. Set aside specific times that you will check your email outside of work, this way can still feel connected without feeling burdened. Take breaks during the day that don’t include screentime. Try brainstorming with a pen and paper or having a conversation with a co-worker instead of emailing them. A real Digital Detox of our culture is going to take time, but we everyone can start making strides, even without a retreat.