Dare to shut down your “always on” culture

While heading to work I see a line of city buses, emptied of passengers, their headsigns glowing “OUT OF SERVICE.” They are leaving downtown to reload in the suburbs.

It reminds me of the need for us, too, to be sometimes emptied and unavailable. We take vacations and the occasional holiday to rest, to renew mentally, to change perspective through distance. We empty out, to return full. We empty out, so we don’t burn out.

Leaders in an organization tend to be reachable all times and everywhere, and a certain ever-presence goes with the territory. But sometimes the behaviour seeps deeper. Middle managers are increasingly an email or text away. Staff responsible for critical systems or processes, too. It becomes expected, part of the culture, for everyone.

It can seem harmless. A staff person can triage her own messages, we presume, and respond only to the true emergencies. Unfortunately, although she may be on the beach, part of her brain is still in the office as she scrolls, thinking office thoughts. Every message strikes a blow against being where she is. Chipping away at future creativity, innovation, fresh thinking. Chipping away at her health.

Allow your team members to set up email rules and auto-responders that tell internal staff that the recipient is on vacation, that their message won’t be read, and that they can resend their query when the recipient returns. (No returning to an overflowing inbox.) If it’s an emergency, provide alternate contacts. (Because if a system or process is truly critical, you’ve planned some redundancy. Right?) And if something absolutely must reach that person, then have it go through a secret back channel such as a Gmail account set up for emergencies, which only one or two people know about.

Down time is important, so plan for it.

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