When Josh Coates needs to reach one of his salespeople or software engineers by cell phone, he wants them right now.
"If I get voice mail, it's irritating. Working for a start-up is more than a 9-to-5 job," says the 29-year-old founder and chief technology officer of Scale Eight Inc., a San Francisco data storage company with annual sales over $5 million. "People should be available, period."
In the old days, availability was all about being at your desk. But thanks to technology, now it's an "eyebrow raiser" when someone is temporarily unavailable, says Liz Ryan, an HR expert and founder and CEO of Liz Ryan Consulting in Boulder, Colorado. "A lot of employers believe 'I'm giving you a cell phone and I'm paying for it, so you're going to answer it when I call,'" she says.
Employees who dare to disconnect in this economy are running the risk of being marginalized on the job, says John Challenger, CEO of Chicago outplacement and research firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Managers looking to make staff cuts "will go for those people who are out of sight, out of mind," he says. But is that good for your business?
Americans already work more hours than anyone else on the planet. Now instant availability is leading to debate on whether employees should be paid overtime for work done via e-mail and cell phones during off-hours. "It's the biggest gray area in employment," Ryan says.
While Americans are working longer hours, it doesn't always make us more productive. A study by the International Labor Organization last year found that France had higher productivity per worker than the United States, even though the French work a maximum of 35 hours per week by law.
Think about how instant availability might be creating new inefficiencies in work flow and time management. Is talking shop on the phone for two hours at night instead of setting a brief, 30-minute morning meeting the best use of everyone's time? Then there are mobile employees who think that because they're always reachable, they're always working, and it's changing the way they do their jobs. Hey, I have my BlackBerry and cell phone, so why not catch that afternoon matinee? I'm going to try to work at home tonight anyway. "Technology is breeding and reinforcing poor management practices," Ryan says.
Coates agrees that technology can mask laziness, but employees can't hide for long whether they're working hard or hardly working. As your company grows, you'll figure out who needs to be most involved in the decisions being made. "It naturally works out that way," he says. If you're not getting both results and availability in employees, you'll have to find the root cause, which could be a time management problem, a lack of dedication or poor skills, he says.
Results are what it's all about, but you should also be training your people so they don't have to be available constantly, says Dave Anderson, president of LearntoLead, a management and sales consulting firm in Los Altos Hills, California. "It doesn't matter how available people are if they don't get the job done," he says, adding: "People need a life."
As an employer, you need to set clear boundaries and expectations. Understand how employees structure their time, and if you must call during nights or weekends, keep conversations very short and on topic. "You're the boss," she says. "Your subordinate will stay on the phone as long as you do."
Letting employees unplug completely occasionally can actually be a competitive advantage, says Kurt Sandholtz, a career development consultant in Provo, Utah, and co-author of Beyond Juggling: Rebalancing Your Busy Life. "It's an underutilized source of employee recognition," he says.
The challenge is creating a culture that makes employees feel comfortable disconnecting. Sandholtz suggests starting a "use it or lose it" vacation policy where vacation days don't transfer over to the next year. That way, you mandate time off as a part of company culture. Ask vacationing employees to check in if need be, but your goal should be to have their jobs so well-covered, it's unnecessary to bother them. They'll come back refreshed-and more productive.
We could be heading for an employee backlash, where being able to disconnect becomes a recruiting and retention tool. Set boundaries now so employees don't call you on the past when the economy takes off again. "Companies that have treated people like garbage are going to lose them," Ryan says. "[Employees] will remember."
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.