Today’s Dear Coach is about the Annual Summer Battle of Technology vs. Vacations.
We are right around the corner from summer vacation season, and I’ve been reflecting on how we choose to celebrate that most intangible of gifts—time. In a US News and World Report article from January 30th, 1967, it was confidently declared that “Industry is growing more automated, will produce fantastic amounts of wealth for all—and a shrunken workweek.” Since then, much of our industry has been shipped overseas, leaving our economy dominated by service-based businesses. The newest automation that we’ve seen hasn’t been on assembly lines as much as in our briefcases. Many of us have abandoned desktops in favor of laptops; we have tablets for note taking and presentations; and Smart phones are truly computers in the palm of our hand. This has revolutionized our mobility as service providers, but it has not shrunk our workweek let alone created fantastic amounts of wealth for all.
While our technology keeps getting smaller and more nimble, our quality of life on the job is not improving. According to Gallup, the average hours worked by full-time employees has increased to 47 per week, despite the fact that the federally recognized definition of “full time” is 40 hours a week. Worse still, the poll also found that 39% of full-time employees work 50 to 60 hours a week. Technology is not solely to blame for this new standard, but it greatly contributes to the 24/7 accessibility that makes both business owners and employees feel that they cannot truly step away at the end of the day. We now even have the ability to strap that access right to our own wrists.
For those of us who tend to be categorized as “slow adopters,” it could be argued that we are Luddites whose preference for brandishing our Timexes and paperbacks rather than our iWatches and iPads makes us outdated and out of step. There is truth to this. Mobile technologies allow business owners to handle issues remotely, enabling us to travel when previously we believed we couldn’t step away for a week at a time. I know many business owners who now take a vacation knowing that they can triage messages with their smart phone or iWatch.
The issue isn’t that technology doesn’t contribute positively to our lives. It’s when the scales unevenly tip in the struggle for work-life balance that technology becomes more of a hindrance than a help. Sixty-one percent of Americans report that they work while on vacation, despite their family members’ irritation. Whenever I ask a small business owner how they enjoyed their trip, I hear the invariable caveat: “We all had a really nice time. A family trip was definitely overdue. But I spent more time than I thought answering my emails. Apparently no one can handle things completely while I’m gone.” In my experience, those statements reveal that 1) Constantly being electronically tethered does not give us the rest we truly need; and, 2) It may be easier for employees to use their techno umbilical cord rather than their own judgment.
I agree that technology can be a powerful, highly effective tool. However, it is not a substitute for employee training, effective operational systems, leadership skills, and healthy boundaries. If business owners do not take the time to properly communicate with employees, establish expectations, and encourage them to use their own judgment, then be prepared for the ensuing stream of emails, texts, and calls in fear of making the wrong decision without you. Owning an iWatch or any other piece of sexy technology may be fun and cutting edge, but it won’t fix an inherently broken business model—or let you take a real vacation.
For me personally, the need for healthy boundaries with technology became crystal clear in Muir Woods. On the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge, this ancient, unspoiled space is home to sequoias that have stood through the centuries. We’re talking tree rings since the Magna Carta. On my last trip to the Bay area, I thought Muir Woods would be one of those rare bastions of quiet and true connection with nature—right up until someone nearby started talking loudly on their phone. My wonder at the giant trees and delicately cut ferns was rapidly replaced by incredulity that anyone would favor a phone call over such a spectacular scene. Clearly, my astonishment has not left me, and it certainly has been channeled into how I advise my clients: Put yourself in time out. It’s okay to disconnect, in fact it’s healthy for you and everyone around you. It’s as important to recharge your brain and body as your phone and laptop. What that will do for your creativity and judgment will actually be the best thing for your business.