This is the first Inside HR Tech column for the summer and, as happens every year around this time, the number of “out-of-office” auto-reply emails increases, some standing meetings get canceled or postponed due to more people than normal being not available and, even if only just a bit, work and productivity seem to slow down.
But there is something else you have probably noticed in recent years: a change in what “out of office” actually means. First, some people I have talked with about this no longer bother setting up auto-reply messages when they know they are going to be out. And second, increasingly, when we get an out-of-office reply, it is often immediately followed by a “real” reply, almost always with a “Sent from my mobile” note in the signature. Sure, the sender is “out,” but—regardless of whether they are on a beach, on a plane or strolling through a museum—they are still pretty locked in with work. It’s these changes I want to talk about and explore what, if anything, HR leaders should do about them.
Work is Becoming Boundary-Free
We have become resigned to the fact that we plan to (or are expected to) remain, more or less, on top of our email while we are away from work. Part of this is a cultural response: If the organization—or, perhaps more importantly, the department or project team of which you are a member—has set a standard that people will almost always be reachable and responsive, then most of us have no choice but to fall in line. And modern technology, of course, has developed to the point where—except in only the most extreme or remote circumstances—we all know that email (and other workplace tools) are going to be accessible. Think about your reaction when you get an email reply with a line like “I will have limited access to email while I am away.” We all know that is almost always not accurate. You will have access to email; what you are really trying to say is that you plan on not checking your email that much. A recent essay in the New York Times compared work to water—the idea being that work can flow and follow us everywhere, filling up all available open space in our lives.
Workplace Technology—For Good and Not-So Good
Not that long ago, just about every type of worker—whether they were in an office, a brick and mortar store, a warehouse or a factory—had to physically be present in their work location in order to conduct any meaningful work. Work was primarily a place you went. My dad worked in professional finance and accounting roles for more than 35 years before he retired, and I never once recalled him doing any “work” when he was home or when we were on summer vacation. It simply was not practical—and also not expected, I would imagine.
Today, with almost every workplace technology deployed in the cloud and accessible with readily available smartphones and other devices, work is never more than a WiFi connection away. And most of the tools we use for work—email, instant messaging, workplace collaboration tools like Slack and even good old SMS or text messaging—with their incessant notifications that command our attention (and interrupt whatever else it is we are meant to be doing), it is no wonder that, as the Times suggested, work seems to take on the properties of water, finding its way in at all times. To be fair, this is not just a “vacation” issue. As I have been writing this piece on a Wednesday morning, I had to close my email programs, silence my phone and turn off a few other ways that I can be contacted in order to be able to concentrate fully on this article. While this incredible technology allows us much more flexibility than ever before, there is certainly also a cost. With all the tools we have at our disposal, it seems ironic that, in order to do anything, we often have to get away from these same tools.
Employers Should Look for Signs of Burnout
Recently, the World Health Organization included “burnout” as an occupational phenomenon in its International Classification of Diseases guidelines. Burnout is defined by the WHO as follows:
“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
The WHO has basically defined and categorized the kinds of symptoms or stresses that many of us have probably experienced at times in our work lives, and may be even experiencing currently. While we all have known that work-related exhaustion and stress re “real,” this statement from the WHO has put the issue at the forefront of the workplace conversation.
This development is particularly relevant to the “out-of-office” discussion above. If you are someone who is in a workplace where burnout is likely, or even just possible, then never being away from that setting, even when you are meant to be lazily reading a summer novel in a hammock, is really troubling. When work accompanies us everywhere we go, at all times, and never seems to abate, the conditions are certainly much more conducive to employee burnout.
HR leaders need to pay additional attention needs to these issues, particularly in the summer months, when most employees do look to take at least some time off to have fun, to connect with family and friends, to explore their own interests and, truly, to simply be away from work. If we, as an organization, allow, or even expect, work to flow like water, then almost none of the important elements and benefits of getting away from work can be realized. As the summer kicks off, think really carefully about how your organizational processes, technologies and culture interact and combine to either support, or not support, the important need for all employees (even you) to get some time away. And if you have to, think about this issue from your own personal perspective: Can you truly get away? If not, chances are that most of the rest of the team can’t either.
Have a great summer.