Switching off an "Always on" Culture

The “always-on” work culture, says Leslie Perlow, drains morale and initiative, and scatters employees’ mental resources, making it difficult for them to take ownership of projects and prioritize their efforts. But changing it requires collective effort. 

During a 2010 Pew research study, according to an NPR article on texting and driving, the majority of teens interviewed “looked at the interviewers in horror” when asked whether they ever completely turned off their cellphones. So immersed were these young people in their social networks that the idea of being unavailable, even for an instant, was unimaginable. 


Is it any different in the working world? Increasingly, white collar workers are expected to be on call 24/7, available by smartphone or laptop to respond to any minor query. We all know it doesn’t have to be this way, but when the expectation of responsiveness is cultural, it’s not always a simple matter of pushing the “off” button. For teens, there’s the threat of social isolation. For adult workers, the fear of falling behind your coworkers or losing your job. 

Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow, author of Sleeping With Your Smartphone, is an ethnographic researcher (i.e. rich, long-form observations of human behavior rather than number-crunching) into the world of work. Her studies of how people spend their time in the workplace reveal surprising disconnects between organizations’ aspirations and their actions, and glaring opportunities for doing things better. 

Leslie Perlow on how organizations can (and why they should) break the "cycle of responsiveness"

The “always-on” work culture creates numerous problems for organizations, she says, all stemming from the fact that it denies workers a sense of individual efficacy and autonomy by putting them on a permanent state of reactive alert. It drains morale and initiative, and scatters employees’ mental resources, making it difficult for them to take ownership of projects and prioritize their efforts. 

In a project with Boston Consulting Group, Perlow attempted in a very small way to switch off the always-on culture, and study what happened. She calls BCG “an extreme case” – an “elite professional service firm, where people are always on and that's really the expectation and the client really does call and the client really does pay large sums of money.” 

With stakes so high at BCG, it required a huge collaborative effort to implement a very small change – giving each worker one night per week off the grid after 6pm. It also took regular reviews and reminders to convince workers really, truly to take that little bit of time off. But once they changed this little bit of company culture, the employees and the organization noticed significant ripple effects in the form of smarter collaborative approaches to solving all kinds of problems that everyone had formerly ignored. Workers felt more energized and engaged, and retention rates increased. 

What’s the Significance? 

Adults horrified by texting and driving tend to point the blame at individual teens for failing to take initiative and make smart choices. But at any age, humans function on both individual and organizational levels, and group culture is powerful. Real change of deep-seated, counterproductive habits, Perlow observes, often has to begin a collective understanding of what we’re doing wrong, and a group effort to change for the better.  

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Image credit: Neon Sign/Shutterstock.com

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