How Setting Digital Boundaries Can Help Women Succeed
Forbes, Amy Blankson
May 15 2017
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a group of female executives about the modern challenges of finding work-life balance in the digital era. As I shared statistics about how the average smart phone user today checks their phone 150 times each day, the women’s jaws dropped. When I shared that 55% of individuals regularly check their email after 11 p.m., one woman shook her head, but said that she was not surprised. However, when I asked them how they personally used their positions of leadership to stem the tide of constant communication, they shifted uncomfortably.
After an awkward pause, one woman was brave enough to share that she had chosen not to lower the expectation for email response times because she feared coming across as “soft” among her colleagues or too “family-oriented.”
We may have broken through the glass ceiling in some domains, but we still have more work to do.
Despite positions of power, many women still struggle to set digital boundaries for their employees because there are gender-based ramifications of having more relaxed policies. A female boss who is demanding is seen as tough; a female boss who encourages vacation time is seen as having lower standards.
As Marketing Analyst Paige Dinnie explained to me, ‘Women already have to go above and beyond to prove we are as smart and valuable as our male counterparts, much less that we are more competent. I think there is an expectation, albeit an unspoken one, that women need to prove themselves; and in today’s tech-driven world, part of that expectation is that you will be available, ready and willing, whenever duty calls.’
Work-life balance has long been the elusive holy grail of an engaged workforce, particularly for women who make up the large majority of caregivers for both children and aging parents.
Although more than 80% of employers now offer flexible hours to accommodate different schedules and lifestyles, the rise of smartphone technologies has introduced a new set of challenges, enabling us to work-on-the-go, using spare moments to check in with work or even to try to get ahead.
While we might have started using technology to increase our efficiency and bolster our quality time, in reality the opposite seems to be happening. Instead, job creep, or the blurring of work and personal life, has set in, making it more difficult to cognitively detach from work. Depending on the manager, schedule flexibility can easily be abused with little justification or rewards needed. In a notorious email, Quinn Emanuel law partner explained to his employees, “Unless you have very good reason not to (for example when you are asleep, in court or in a tunnel), you should be checking your emails every hour.”
A 2012 survey by the Center for Creative Leadership found that 60% of smartphone-using professionals keep in touch with work for 13.5 hours per day, and then spend another five hours checking work email each weekend.
While it may seem logical that constantly being available and “on-call” would help propel our careers forward, it can actually be counterproductive as it leads to burnout long before our career aspirations are reached.
Several enlightened leaders have started pushing back against this trend. In 2009, HBS professor Leslie Perlow ran an experiment at the Boston Consulting Group in which employees were encouraged to carve out periods of “predictable time off,” or periods of time in which they would not be expected to respond to emails or calls. While several employees initially expressed anxiety about stepping away from their work, at the end of the experiment, employees reported lower stress, 2x more excitement about going to work, and a 23% increase in job satisfaction.
Likewise, in an interview with Clive Thompson for MotherJones, CEO of Bandwidth David Morken explains that he actually prohibited his 300-plus employees from checking email on vacation. To enforce this policy, he asked his employees to narc on anyone who sends work messages to someone who’s off. He explained, “You have to make it a firm, strict policy…Burned-out, neurotic employees who never step away from work are neither productive nor creative. It appears everyone wins when the boss offers workers ample time to unplug.”
Policies like those set by Perlow and Morken reverse the expectations for what it means to be a “good employee” and set a new social script for interaction in the office. And the research shows that doing so actually leads to better outcomes, a more engaged workforce, and higher life satisfaction for all.
In Shawn Achor’s TED talk entitled ‘The Happy Secret to Better Work,’ he explains that:
Most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier…if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. We’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon, as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, and then we’ll be happier…but our brains actually work in the opposite order. If we can raise our level of positivity in the present, then our brains experience what we now call a happiness advantage, meaning that our brains at positive perform significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed.
So how do we get there? Whether you are a manager or an employee, there are several steps that you can take to start setting digital boundaries in your life without compromising your bottom line (in fact, it may even boost it).
1. Ground your intentions. In the same way that the third prong on an electrical outlet helps to channel energy, we need to tap into our third prong, which I define as a set of guiding principles and beliefs that shape when, where, why and how we interact with technology.This might mean setting a rule to create a phone stack at the dinner table, and the first person to pick up their phone has to miss out on dessert; it might mean setting a resolution to not make your phone the first thing that you look at when you wake up. Or it could mean setting up visual reminders for yourself of your intentions.Raj Daniels, founder of tech-startup OpenTime, decided to create an image for his lock screen to serve as a gut check about whether he really needed to swipe to open his phone or not: a green arrow points to right and says’ “towards my goals,” and a red arrow points left and says, “away from my goals.” If the reason for unlocking his phone moves him further from his goals, then he simply tucks his phone back into his pocket.
2. Turn off non-essential notifications. The average person now checks his or her smartphone 150 times every day. Now, if we conservatively estimated that every distraction took only one minute (which is seriously optimistic), this would account for 2.5 hours of distraction every day. That’s 912.5 hours a year, or roughly thirty-eight days each year! Research suggests that being distracted from a task (like, say, working) for just a minute can disrupt our short-term memory, causing us to forget whatever ideas or intentions we had in mind. After a mere 8-second interruption (the time it might take to read a text message), we make twice as many errors on a complex task; after 4.4 seconds (the time it might take to write one), our errors triple.
3. Hide your phone. The mere presence of a cell phone can decrease your productivity, disrupt your focus, and cause you to feel less connection with colleagues. Why? Because you are anticipating that you might get a call or a message. So the next time you go into a meeting or meet a colleague for coffee, stash your phone out of sight.
4. Check email less. Research suggests that people who check email less frequently become less stressed, and (in turn) they experience better sleep, deeper social connection, and more meaning in life.
5. Set expectations. Whether you are the boss or the employee, it’s important to communicate your boundaries in a respectful and professional. Will you be on hand to answer emails at midnight? To take work calls during your family trip to Disney World? It’s up to you to create these boundaries. As Media & PR Manager Kathryn Montgomery explains, ‘If you start responding to every little message any hour of the day your employer and everyone else expects that same response from you moving forward.’
One effective strategy for setting expectations is to use an authentic “out of office” message. If you are trying to focus, grant yourself a “design day” and let others know you will be offline for the day. Or if you are going on vacation, explain that you are out of town with family and “trying to be more present by stepping away from technology for a week.” Most of the time, people will be satisfied knowing when they can expect to hear back from you. Coworkers appreciate your candor and are inspired by your authenticity and intention.
There is no denying the fact that our world is filled with constant distractions, many of which revolve around technology. The good news is that living a more balanced life is attainable as long as we ground our intentions, set reasonable expectations, and limit the frequency with which we allow ourselves to fall victim to distractions. Regardless of gender, the onus is on us to establish our own digital boundaries and to encourage others to do the same. A balanced life is a happy life — we shouldn’t be afraid to demand it or to lead the way.