Ombuds' Corner: Signs of our times?!

Do you get up in the morning and go online before getting your coffee? Do you sit down to meals with your mobile phone next to your plate? Do you get an awful feeling of complete disorientation and not knowing what to do with yourself when you disconnect from the Internet? As exaggerated as these actions may have seemed a few years ago, today they are familiar occurrences that are indeed the signs of our times.


“I connect, therefore I am” seems to be the new version of Descartes’ famous saying. The technological possibility of 24/7 worldwide connectivity is now an everyday fact of life and we all enjoy having knowledge at our fingertips and the ability to communicate across the globe quasi-instantaneously.

In the work environment, this development has brought a flexibility and availability that has completely changed the way we work and interact with each other. This constant connectivity allows us to organise our lives differently, and we find ourselves working longer hours when we need to meet deadlines, and adjusting schedules both at work and at home to fit in the demands of the job.

Whereas this kind of flexibility is extremely important at times, and particularly during peak periods at work, we tend to forget that it can very quickly get transformed into an expectation of constant availability. When this happens it can become a workplace norm where, whether or not we are at work, we feel that work-related issues must be dealt with immediately, and that failure to do so might be perceived negatively.

Unspoken or implicit expectations such as these can make us feel as if being “offline” is a waste of time and unproductive. If we switch off during a child’s school play or a weekend of family festivity, we may feel guilty. And if a colleague or a member of our hierarchy chooses to have no access to e-mail during evenings or weekends, we might be tempted to consider this as a lack of commitment to the job or the role.

The heavy pressure from these unspoken norms can lead to behaviour which directly contradicts the work/life balance. Holidays and weekends are there precisely in order to ensure a break, a change of activity. Having some rest from the work routine allows us to return to work with renewed energy, thus leading to increased productivity and efficiency.

So what can we do to overcome the temptation to always be connected to our inbox? We could start by asking ourselves a few simple questions: is this an urgent issue that needs to be dealt with immediately? Can this late night e-mail wait for a response until tomorrow? Will there be any serious consequences if I switch off this evening? And equally importantly, if I don’t switch off, how does this affect others? What unspoken expectations do my colleagues have about my availability?

And of course, for those of you who are managers, why not lead by example? Start by questioning some of your own habits with regard to constant connectivity… and then consider launching conversations in your teams in order to clarify your expectations of each other and create a working culture that is at once productive and efficient while remaining respectful of work/life balance.

Why not challenge some of these signs of our times and who knows… perhaps the next time you wake up at 2 a.m. and find yourself reaching out to check your e-mail, you will think twice about it … and choose instead to stay ‘offline’ and wait to come into the office the next day fully rested, refreshed and ready to ‘switch on again!’

"Until we can manage time,
we can manage nothing else.

Peter F. Drucker


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by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill