Counter-Balancing the "Insta-On" Work Culture

Instead of succumbing to bad work culture traits, we can evolve them, one vacation at a time

A new concept is beginning to take hold in the business world—that of the blurring of the boundaries between working hours and non-working hours.  Fewer and fewer of us are punching the clock and are instead finding ourselves in blended and sometimes ambiguous scenarios where our personal and professional lives overlap in deeper and more involved ways than ever before.

The idea of work-life balance has been kicked around in various forms, by managers and HR, since the early '00s.  But that original directive was based on the work culture of the '90s and assumed a more binary on/off approach to work.  When we shut down our desktop PCs at the office, we were “off” the clock, and we were allowed new flexibility outside of the standard 9 to 5 as to when we got to flip the switch.  We were on a path to finding balance that would help us to manage all of the tasks and responsibilities of life—kids, workouts, dogs, groceries, doctors, recitals, nights out, birthdays, etc.

These days our work comes with us on our laptops, iPads, Surfaces, and most-invasively our mobile phones.  We don’t flip the power switch on our 30lb desktop PCs anymore.  We drop our iPhones in our bag and dash off to the next thing.  Conference calls in the car.  Email updates in the produce section at the grocery store.  Text messages while in line at the movies.  Who am I kidding.  We don’t go to the movies anymore—thanks Netflix-Hulu-Prime.  And we don’t have time to waste in line at the grocery store—thanks Instacart-Peapod-Now-Google-Express.

The advent of email kicked off the business revolution in the '90s that was near-instantaneous communication, and with the ubiquity of the Internet and mobility, has morphed into the instantaneous “always on” work place.  Thanks to Skype (formerly Lync), and other IM apps like it, our availability is broadcast universally and our bosses and colleagues expect us to move at a pace that keeps up with every conversation, virtual or otherwise, in real time. 

The solution to all of this being discussed today is Unlimited Vacation.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but the premise is based on the idea that we don’t really have a solution to un-blur the work/life boundary (rather it is assumed to be the natural evolution of business) and so as work encroaches more into our personal lives then we should be able to push back and checkout for whatever amount of time is needed to recharge.

There is evidence that this can work.  Northern European maternity and paternity leaves that can last the better part of a year show results that include better-bonded families and key family and social structures in place for newborns, and happier parents.  Studies in the US have also shown an interesting trend that when unlimited vacation is implemented employees actually use less vacation on average than before the policy change, indicating there is not an intense financial drain on the company to supply the benefit.

There are plenty more pros and cons that can be discussed on the new work-life balance approach in unlimited vacation.  However, there is an element that is being completely bypassed by the concept—the idea that we cannot un-blur the line between work and life and that the trend will continue as unstoppable.  Some say that work is life, and life is work.  Sure.  We spend more time with our colleagues on average than we do with our family, or even sleeping, over the course of a year.  But, we don’t marry our jobs.  Our jobs did not take an oath to commit to one-another through better or worse; richer or poorer.  So what can we do?  What should we do?

I have had the displeasure of watching a “higher-up” wait for nearly five minutes for a response to an email and the resulting total degradation of his humanity in just 300 ticks of second hand—the aftermath of that excruciating 1.04% of his workday (assuming it was capped at 8 hours) was epic.  An employee was reprimanded (a polite description) and an expectation with profound life-invading consequences was severely reinforced.

With email we started to get it wrong.  And it has snowballed.  Most companies, and the business world in general, have yet to step back and truly gauge what technology has done to our expectations and what we have allowed to become a pervasive culture of “insta-on”.  The key common element between email, instant messaging, and the like, is simply that we did not get more time in our workday to manage them.  Our workday took time originally allotted to our personal time.  The pace of business has indeed increased, but so has its share of our total time in a day.  Sometimes the blend is easy and unobtrusive.  Sometimes, it is mentally devastating.  And for most, it is a build-up that we put up with, frustrated at times, but generally unable to alter because we are all complacent in letting the insta-on expectation dominate our work culture.

I like the idea of unlimited vacation.  I have petitioned my firm to offer it.  But the reason I want it is much the same reason I want unlimited data and unlimited minutes.  I just don’t want to have to worry about banking it.  What is most important is that at the end of each workday, it is my responsibility to unplug.  Whether I have to bank and count my vacation hours or not.

But, what does that mean, to unplug?  It means that I have to figure out what is going to work for me, and how to do it.  As an example, I am a very big fan of the out-of-office (OOO) auto-reply.  I use it to provide an explicit expectation that the sender will not receive a response from me until I return, and provide clear instructions on how to manage in my absence.  I have also seen it used very smartly (along with an update to an email signature) to give a heads-up that someone is going on vacation.  In other words, you are on notice to get done what you need to get done with me before I am out of the office.

And this is where the real consequences of the insta-on culture can be seen in action.  Real-time communication allows us to be lazy.  Forgot something that you didn’t write down in that meeting on Monday?  Just ping Bob on IM and he’ll tell you.  Can’t find that file in the mess of your company SharePoint because you didn’t save the link the last time you found it?  Just email Jane, she always knows these things.  (Why Bob and Jane aren’t responding to their IMs and emails when they’re in a meeting presenting on screen is beyond me.  So frustrating.)

What does it mean to unplug?  It also means setting yourself up for a smooth departure—not leaving things untidy in a way that you know will blow up while you are out, inevitably leading to being on the phone and email while your vacation gets cold on the back burner without you.  It also means having the confidence (and entrusting your colleagues with the same) that your limited time out of the office will not cause a calamity.  If it does, then that’s an entirely different issue that needs to be reflected on and addressed as part of the company culture.

Recently, I took a vacation.  For my “birthday week”.  I booked the full week following my birthday months in advance and guarded the time on my calendar, swatting away this ask and that meeting.  For this particular vacation, my husband saw the need to do something we have never done before.  A stay-cation.  Such a silly phrase, but accurate nonetheless.  I gave him carte blanche to plan our vacation and he surprised me with one of the most relaxing experiences I have ever had.  My part simply involved setting my OOO and sticking to it.

What we often miss when we go on vacation is any time to actually relax because we plan more than we can reasonably handle, and we stay connected to the office (and allow the office to stay connected to us).  I managed to flip my work switch to “off” and enjoyed every-day life as my vacation.  I know a number of issues came up while I was out of the office, but my colleagues managed without me, just as they were supposed to do.  I have also heard the fear-laden response that that means that I am expendable.  That is a terrible assumption, and a dangerous one that also reeks of inefficiency.  It represents another opportunity to look inward at your company culture and ask if you are doing things in the best way for everyone.

My Chicago birthday week vacation adventure involved a surprise birthday brunch, an escape and drinks at The Bar at the Peninsula, becoming members (finally!) of the Art Institute of Chicago and seeing the Van Gogh exhibit.  Another museum visit at Driehaus and a Downton Abbey-inspired high tea.  Then came the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a chance to enjoy Beethoven and be intensely challenged by Lutoslawski, and then completely mesmerized by Yo-Yo Ma thanks to a ridiculously difficult Shostakovich cello concerto (No. 1) that he played from memory.

We discovered a little French gem at Bistro Zinc in our neighborhood and went back twice—like two lovebirds on a date in Paris.  We ended my birthday week with a fabulous dinner party co-hosted at a friend’s apartment, bringing together old friends and new friends.  All the while, I got to snuggle with my hubby in the morning, read the paper, catch up on my reading list, sip and enjoy my tea, meander through a pile of catalogs, and stroll around different shops with no deadline looming—we discussed pillows at Restoration Hardware for an hour and a half.  It was a way to enjoy daily life as the sublime.  Unfettered, unperturbed, unbothered, and unplugged.

Whether I had unlimited vacation to put toward my birthday week, or not, I would not have enjoyed or been happy if my approach was not one of balancing my life with my work.  That is not the responsibility of my manager, or my firm.  It is mine, and mine alone.  Quite a few of the negatives that pervade our insta-on culture can hinder our willingness to truly unplug, but if you do not do it no one will do it for you.  In fact, they will simply continue to pile on.

The blurring of the boundaries between working hours and non-working hours, as we find ourselves in these blended and sometimes ambiguous scenarios is where we must take personal responsibility to redraw the borders between personal and professional.  Perhaps it is not so easy on a daily basis, but for vacation, that dedicated time away, it is more important than ever to disconnect and focus entirely on our whatever-matters-most.  As you do it, your colleagues will see it.  And instead of succumbing to bad work culture traits, we can evolve them, one vacation at a time.