The Women@Work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail.
Not a destination holiday – those are hardly relaxing now that my Android phone and iPad accompany me everywhere — but a digital one. I crave a break where I can go for a substantial amount of time, say an hour or two, without checking one of my many digital devices. It’s more complicated than it sounds since I’ve been sleeping with my iPad for over a year. Before that, my BlackBerry never left my side.
During heightened moments of work stress, I find myself unconsciously moving from one device to another within seconds only to check and delete the same email or social media notifications. I want to stop but in true Pavlovian style, the new mail chime proves irresistible even if checking it never brings me any relief.
Don’t get me wrong – I love technology and despite the jokes about “CrackBerries,” research shows that mobile devices improve productivity and our lives. But this compulsion to be productive all the time can lead to a digital burnout. I fear one day misdirecting my resentment to some unwitting sender who harmlessly CCs me on a fluffy email chain.
Although I recognize the irony of running a digital media company while advocating for some offline time, I’m not alone in my stance. At the annual Wisdom 2.0 conference in Silicon Valley, founders and top executives from leading technology companies discuss balance in the digital age.
Canadians, specifically, should take heed. A 2012 comScore report showed we lead the world in online engagement, spending more than 45 hours a month online, five more than the average in the U.S. We also spend an average of 2.8 hours daily on mobile devices.
Rather than joining ranks with the Luddites, a middle ground on the technology front may be available that not only saves our sanity, but also proves beneficial for businesses.
In Sleeping with Your Smartphone, Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow recounts an experiment at the Boston Consulting Group where each member of a six person group took turns disconnecting at 6 p.m. until the next morning – sometimes against their will. This “predictable time off” led to more collaborative and efficient teams.
Other companies impose similar limitations. For example, Volkswagen shuts off emails for some of its employees 30 minutes after their shift ends and starts then again 30 minutes before their next shift.
But without the enforced structure, many of us are left to our own devices to cope.
Janice McDonald, an Ottawa-based entrepreneur and co-founder iStyleOriginals.com and mymusic.ca took an unintentional digital break when her BlackBerry took a spin in the washing machine on a recent holiday.
“After the initial panic and withdrawal, I learned that there are far fewer urgent emails that need to be answered immediately. Most can wait for a more convenient time that suits my schedule,” observed Ms. McDonald.
The lingering impact of that washing-machine incident proved beneficial for her business life. Ms. McDonald no longer treats her BlackBerry as another person at meetings and email no longer drives her day, allowing her more space for strategic thinking.
Other professionals are more calculating in their decisions, such as Francine Gingras, vice president of global public relations at Elizabeth Arden in New York and an advocate of “digital detox.” Three years ago, when the Welland, Ontario-born executive learned that her family’s nickname for her was “BlackBerry mama”, she decided to take action and went on a 2-month, technology-free trip across Asia with her daughter.
Four days into the trip, she found that they both rediscovered how to be fully alert and attuned to their experience, likening it to donning a giant “Do not disturb” sign. That clear division between digital time and face time continues to influence her managerial approach.
“I am a communicator so there are some realities where I do need to be connected,” explained Ms.Gingras. “Giving my team and management all of my attention while with them is not only respectful; it helps me be more efficient and sets an example for this next generation of digitally savvy millennials,”she added.
The influence extends to her daughter as well, now a now a 19-year old student at Carnegie Mellon University.
“I don’t think it’s healthy to be reliant on temporary things. Sometimes I need to disconnect to get some quiet time to do other things,” said Josephine Sullivan.
Even smaller companies are beginning to see the value of a digital disconnect for increased productivity.
In September, Adrienne Graham, CEO of Empower Me! Corporation, a business strategies consultancy based in Atlanta, Georgia took her family on a Caribbean cruise. Not only did Ms. Graham leave all technology behind, she asked her team to take the time off as well.
“I can’t say what they did with their time,” admitted Ms. Graham, but she credits the a boost of creativity to the break.
“I came back and the ideas started rolling in,” she said, adding, “I was a lot more relaxed upon my return and that allowed me to be able to jump in to work without the usual stalling or dreading.”