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A 24/7 Workday? Turning Off Tech to Remain Productive

Just because we can be in touch with our career life 24 hours a day doesn't mean that we should.

I highly recommend, from local Alexandria author Amy Fries, her book Daydreams at Work. In it, she says we need to give our brains a chance to step away sometimes from the details and annoyances in order to think differently.

You know that feeling at the end of the workday when you power down your computer, grab your bag and head out into Beltway traffic? You leave the stresses, the projects not yet finished and the office politics behind and you turn your mind to dinner, family and maybe the game on TV later tonight. A normal end to a normal workday — but then there is a buzz in your pocket. An email marked "urgent" asks you to answer a few questions for a presentation that needs to go out first thing tomorrow. Then another reminding you to be prepared to respond to a press conference from Tokyo happening in a few hours.

Does that sound like your experience? Are you "on the clock" around the clock? Today's tech makes it possible to be connected no matter the time nor the place, but is it a good idea?

Times have changed

Just a few decades ago, the only people on call were doctors and emergency responders. The work that did get done after the end of the business day was performed by people working assigned shifts, no one person was expected to be available for all of the hours of the day nor every day of the week.

Working on weekends, late evenings and early mornings were extras. If you were an hourly employee and worked beyond your scheduled hours you were paid at an overtime rate. If you didn't qualify for overtime because you were classified as management, your extra efforts would show your ambition and might be rewarded with some comp time to make up for your extra work.

Globalized markets and instant media changed expectations

Once we used the Internet to connect with markets across the world shrinking the virtual distance between farflung cities, we moved to a world with little regard for time zones. Now it isn't just currency traders who have to adjust their understanding of opening hours, but many of us have jobs that are linked to cities that are hours ahead of us, or behind, and it becomes normal to be accessible to customers and colleagues at times other than 9 to 5.

We also expect the businesses we use to respond to us when we are away from our own workplaces. Of course, many businesses schedule workers to handle the off-hours but supervisors, social media managers and ambitious team members often step in to help address problems.

Overtime without overtime pay

These added hours of being tethered to our offices by our smartphones, laptops and home computers often go uncompensated. The federal government's definition of exempt employee covers most of the professional careers in our area as it includes: "Executive, administrative, and professional employees (including teachers and academic administrative personnel in elementary and secondary schools), outside sales employees, and certain skilled computer professionals (as defined in the Department of Labor's regulations).

Virginia's employees are considered "at-will employees." "Virginia is an   employment-at-will state; this means the employer may terminate any employee at any time, for any reason, or for no reason" according to Virginia's Department of Labor and Industry. This means that employees may have little choice to meet the expectations of "off-hour connectivity" if they wish to remain employed, as long as their isn't evidence of discrimination of protected classes under Virginia or federal law.

A trap of our own making?

We all want to be considered invaluable to our organization's success. Being relied upon often equates to being considered a key employee. If we want to be competitive in an increasingly competitive world, we want to be seen as being committed and to serve as a resource available above and beyond our scheduled hours.

In this recession, the fear of losing our job may make us feel that this edge is what we need to provide to hold onto our positions. Our bosses might think that having a 24/7 team makes their own positions more secure. It becomes a game of oneupmanship. But do we really serve our careers by being over-worked, over-connected and maybe giving half-attention to our work communication?

Are emails on your smartphone always the best way to address a complicated problem or a difficult communication? Sometimes the physical setting of a desk and chair allow you to get in the proper frame of mind to communicate professionally. Do you have all of the information at hand when you fire off a note from your living room?

Some companies are recognizing the downsides of 24/7, 365

It may just be a matter of corporate PR, but some large organizations are publicly against the loss of work-life balance and insist on cutting the office cord. Volkswagen's German offices have taken concrete steps in making after-hour company email unavailable to many of their employees, actually shutting down servers.

IBM and Best Buy are two companies that profess to embrace results-only work enviroments. Exempt employees (ie, professionals not subject to overtime rules) are judged by the quality of their work and their productivity, not by evaluating the time spent at work either in person or via the Internet. Many other companies insist, at least in their employee manuals, on vacations, personal time and flex-time to achieve work-life balance.

You have the control over your work day

While tough economic times may push us to extend the worday, 24/7 workdays are not sustainable in the long term. We each need to realistically assess when something is truly urgent, if something cannot wait until the start of the next business day and if the need to be connected comes from the demands of our work or from our own insecurity.

In the 1980s and '90s, people often talked about "workaholics," a term that doesn't seem to be used anymore. Some of that may be due to cultural shifts reacting to more demanding workplaces but another reason may be that we all are slowly normalizing those behaviors when work emails are likely waiting on the smartphone in our pockets.

Even being completely career-driven requires some de-tethering. Being creative and productive in our careers requires downtime. 

Your families, your friends, your pets and your communities want your attention. Constantly checking work emails interferes with that attention. Give your body a chance to recover from a hard day's work and really relax.

So as you sit down for dinner, go out for a walk or simply veg out with a favorite movie — put down the phone and step away from the computer. Coming to work refreshed, clear minded and ready to innovate just might make you the boss someday.

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