Laptops, cell phones, BlackBerries, IM, wireless everything. The U.S. work force stays connected to the workplace more than ever.
A study by Brigham Young University’s business school shows that 60 percent of U.S. executives can’t take a vacation without staying in regular communication with the office. More than 80 percent report that it’s impossible to “disconnect” from work, even when the workday ends. The study doesn’t just refer to physical accessibility by cell phone or e-mail. It raises concerns about the inability to psychologically disengage from work to focus on family and other non-work interests. Even the organizational language has changed in response to this phenomenon. “Work/life balance” now is called “work/life integration.”
Obvious benefits result from being constantly in touch with work. Problems may not have time to fester or escalate. Stakeholders can be reached to sign off on important initiatives that require their buy-in. The company certainly gets its money’s worth out of whatever salary it pays any single executive for a 40-hour workweek.
Personally, the Sunday morning IMs from clients and the 3 a.m. phone calls from Hong Kong drove home for me that maybe I was too accessible. It feels good to be wanted, but let’s take a closer look.
I’ve noticed a troubling dynamic in all this, which I term “cyberdependency” (CD). Before the explosion in communications technology, executives could not be reached easily when someone needed their input on decisions. The bad news: Occasionally, that meant the company couldn’t tap the executive’s expertise. The good news: Someone else, usually an underling, had to think through a problem and make a decision on his or her own. That process helped foster confidence and autonomy in the underlings, which, in turn, allowed their bosses to delegate greater responsibilities to them.
How many times have you been asked to respond to a problem via e-mail and noticed in the response stream that several others were asked the same question? Did you ever wonder who really had ownership of the original problem? Or you receive a call at 8 p.m. asking you to troubleshoot a work crisis.
Have you noticed how energizing it can be to assume control over those issues and quickly mobilize solutions to solve the problem? In the meantime, what did your employee learn about crisis and problem solving? CD creeps up on an executive much like dependency dynamics creep up on parents. The 10-year-old who asks for homework help and eventually has his parents completing math problems and writing essays for him is an example of this. Parents think they are helping. Instead, they short-circuit their kid’s education.
How to fight CD
When you get a call or e-mail at home asking for your help to solve a problem, first ask yourself three questions:
- Can this person solve the problem on his or her own?
- Can this problem wait until tomorrow?
- Who really has ownership of this problem?
- What is your sense of the real problem and how will it affect the business?
- What have you done to solve it and why hasn’t that worked?
- What do you think should be done now?
- What are the risks to your proposed solutions and how can you mitigate those?
The payback: leverage. You can finally delegate more comfortably, seek out other projects that have high impact and use vacation time to re-energize and rekindle relationships with family and friends. You recharge your cell phone every night. Do the same for yourself.
Mike DeGiorgi is co-founder of Alliance Education Group, a training consultancy organization near Washington, D.C.
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