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Work 24/7 at Your Own Peril

Set communications boundaries and use phone calls to your advantage

I am astounded and disappointed at the quantity of email, text messages and phone calls I receive from people who — allegedly — are on vacation.

iStockphoto/richardmclarke Our 24/7, always-on broadcast industry contributes to our always-working neuroses, but we are not alone in our non-stop compulsion to work. This is a massive infection, crossing industries and creating mass anxiety in its wake.

How did we ever accept the expectation that we are always just a few minutes from answering any inquiry — no matter how small? It happened gradually. In the mid-’90s most of us were either blessed with, or cursed by, the arrival of email. This was the start of some serious after-hours two-way communication. Even in 2007 when Apple released the first iPhone and in 2008 when Android took the world by storm, we were innocent to the notion that handheld devices would soon extend the workday until bedtime and, for some, into the night.

Because this is rarely discussed — let alone debated — in the workplace, we are caught in a dilemma that has spiraled out of control. Colleagues have expressed to me that if they don’t answer an after-hours email or text from work within 20 minutes during the week, they are viewed as unresponsive — even on weekends.

To be clear, I am not referring to our comrades who live in the news cycle. Sorry friends, but when you signed up to be on the cutting edge of breaking news, you joined the ranks of those special people who, by the nature of what they do, must be hard-wired to the beast.

Also, there is no question that the majority of engineers are always on call — but that should really be a call, not an unending obligation to check email.

And both of these categories of workers do share an essential element with the rest of humanity: You, too, should take a real vacation.

When you choose to respond to every communication while on vacation — whether in one-, two- or six-hour cycles — you are demonstrating to those closest to you that your work is more important than they are. When I pointed this out to a close friend recently, he told me that he responded to emails “only” once a day when he was with his wife and kids. When I asked him why, he responded that by not checking he’d have too much to do when he went back to work.

Nice try, Superstar, but you get no pass from me. I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but most things will get solved without you for five whole days. When you get back and go through your email you’ll discover that the people you work with actually know what they’re doing and can problem-solve. If they can’t, you’ve got larger problems.

What’s the big deal with checking in once a day when on vacation? Your mind moves out of relaxation mode and plunges you back into work. So what’s the solution to staying in touch while on vacation? Simply tell people you will not be checking your email or texts for that week. If they face an emergency that only you can solve, they can pick up the phone and call you. While nearly everyone at work will send you an email with their eyes closed, almost nobody will actually call you because they first have to think about what qualifies as truly urgent. For example, I have rarely actually witnessed a marketing or sales emergency.

I’ve mixed two issues here. One is taking an actual, battery-recharging vacation; the other is setting limits on after-work communication. While it’s easy to be definitive regarding vacation, setting boundaries for the workday is perhaps even more important and requires first a discussion and then an agreement. The initial step is getting people to understand the difference between communicating a vital issue as opposed to emailing or texting an ordinary request that can wait until the next day.

Besides, when it comes to important matters, I am still a big fan of the telephone. Whether it resides on my desk or in my pocket, having an actual conversation on the phone is fast and rewarding.

But after hours or no emergency? Nights, weekends or on vacation — gimme a call at 867-5309.

The author is president of Lapidus Media. Contact him at [email protected].