September 24, 2018

On throwers and catchers

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I got the following email reply from a colleague not long ago. Actually, on 26 December. “Hi Shai, it is inappropriate to send work emails on Christmas Day”, followed by an answer to a question I had been waiting for.

Because (email) etiquette in business conduct interests me, I then searched the organisation’s policy for sending and receiving emails out of work hours. Absolutely nothing! Troubled and curious whether I had offended a colleague, I pictured myself in a hamster wheel, running and messaging. Is this who I am? A 24/7 keyboard junky? Is my organisation making me feel that I have to be working all the time? In the business culture where I grew up it was the recipient’s choice, and therefore responsibility, whether to read or reply to an email out of work hours and not the sender’s concern whether to send it or not. Did I fail to understand my current organisation’s culture? A “fire-and-forget” (a term borrowed from missile weapon systems) communication happens when the transmitter initiates a one-way communication at their convenience (hence optimal timing) and then moves away to deal with other issues, knowing the message will eventually get attention (hit the target). When the receiver then gets the transmission, they decide on the timing/scope of communicating back (again, one-way), and so on. It’s all about transmissions or handovers. We throw and catch, subject to environmental factors such as globalisation, industry, competition, geography, culture and, of course, our availability.

Source: Wikipedia

In business as in other aspects of life, technology allows us to improve our productivity. Managers can definitely perform better, as they have more tools available. As a result, people are constantly exposed to data (unless, God forbid, there is no signal…). But, this has also been found to increase stress and burnout in the workplace. Back in 2013, some major German companies such as BMW and Volkswagen implemented restrictions on internal communications out of work hours. Daimler (Mercedes) IT mail servers automatically delete emails sent out of work hours. In January 2017, a French law came into force about the “right of the employee to disconnect”, meaning workers got the legal right not to respond to work messages during non-working time. Is this the light at the end of the tunnel for workaholics like me? Could this issue be further enforced by legislation? Well, the main disadvantage is the loss of flexibility, or where, when and how workers and organisations can operate. In today’s world, flexibility and productivity go hand in hand. If one wasn’t allowed to reply to a work email at weekends, their organisation might lose a business opportunity on the other side of the world. I’m quite sceptical of whether laws like the French one are practical in the long term.

It has become our nature to be continually connected – always ready and alert to communicate. I “threw” the ball when I wanted and the “catcher” felt offended by it. Sounds simple, but the complexity of today’s communications indicates that we sadly lost the right to be offended. In other words, we cannot even defend our right not to be disturbed, or the attention to not disturb others. We are in the “here and now” – texting, emailing, WhatsApping, Facebooking and Instagraming – we just cannot get off the (fast) moving bandwidth wagon.

Is there a cure? Do we need one at all? Any deep behavioural change could only be voluntary, where we all (senders and recipients, throwers and catchers, or just communicators), assuming we want to, reclaim our confidence to let go of the “always-on” culture, by taking control of how we manage communication handovers and better use this gift called technology.

Oh yes, and as for my colleague – we’ve settled the issue several days later and he is now sending me emails at 03:00am, straight to a mobile phone set to “flight” mode. How do I know that? I’m checking at 04:00am…

Shai Davidov About Shai Davidov

Shai Davidov, Edinburgh Business School, Senior Teaching Fellow