THE BLOG
09/27/2012 09:18 am ET | Updated Nov 27, 2012

Breaking the Cycle of Responsiveness at Work

I'm writing this on Saturday morning, feeling jazzed that my email inbox is under control and I'm catching up. And I'm haunted by the words of Harvard Business School's Leslie Perlow: "When you innocently clear out your inbox on Saturday morning, you might be ruining the day of someone who works for you."

From low-wage jobs to the top of the corporate ladder, American workers are feeling stretched to capacity. Headcount has been cut to extreme leanness, and expectations are higher than ever. Many professionals feel tethered to their desks, and their health, families, and society suffers for the lack of workplace flexibility. As Anne-Marie Slaughter put it, "You can have it all if you can control your own time much more. An ear infection can wreck a whole week."

What working parent hasn't recently wanted to tear her hair out, managing BlackBerry and Amoxicillin in one swoop? I bet, for many of you, it was okay to leave work and go to the doctor. But it wasn't okay to not respond to email while you were in the pediatrician's waiting room, right?

For the majority of people in my field, whose work depends heavily on email and digital tools, it's not physical presence that makes us feel trapped by work.

It's about boundaries. If you are an information worker (almost 80 percent of U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), your office is everywhere, thanks to your smartphone.

Maggie Jackson writes that:

Studies over the past decade show that people who work at home or outside the office tend to work longer hours, contrary to employers' initial fears. According to a recent survey, 54% of American smartphone owners check their phones in bed -- sometimes in the middle of the night.

Am I the only one who feels work is simply a boundary-less continuum? Saturday feels simply a pause, not a stop time for work.

Leslie Perlow, who I recently had the honor of spending an afternoon with at an intensive learning session run by Families and Work Institute, calls this the "cycle of responsiveness." It's when you get the off-hours email and you STILL respond right away. When you, as a manager, send emails on Saturday morning. Your team then picks up the cues, and they are always responding. Soon, the question of urgency becomes moot, because every missive demands an immediate response.

The cycle of responsiveness has really redefined how we work, and it hurts.

As Susan J. Lambert wrote recently in the New York Times,

"Availability" is now a major form of human capital, in both high-powered salaried positions and low-level hourly jobs. Low-wage workers need to be available at all hours or risk not having work. Professionals are expected to remain electronically tethered to their jobs day and night or risk forgoing coveted opportunities. Both groups of workers lose earnings if they interrupt their careers to care for family members -- as women at all points on the socioeconomic spectrum are more likely to do than their male counterparts.

If you're valued because you never stop, how do you stop? Here are two ideas, one micro and one meta.

What I love about Leslie Perlow's work, highlighted in her new book Sleeping with Your Smartphone, is that she has pioneered a way for teams to unplug and get their lives back. And the great news is, it has not hurt productivity one bit. Leslie sums up her approach like this: Set one small collective goal of personal value, such as stopping work at 6 p.m. one night a week and not checking email until the next morning, or setting a period of an email blackout, or simply taking some thinking time.

On the meta level, I'd like to highlight Anne-Marie Slaughter and the formidable Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chair of the Join Chiefs of Staff who has now become an incredible advocate for workplace flexibility and work life. Slaughter insists we must change the values of what defines a good worker. In our discussions about work, Admiral Mullen brought forth the idea that veterans bring an ability to care for others to the workplace, and that is so valuable to companies and organizations, because it builds strong teams and engagement.

And yet, in our workplace, for someone to say, "I'm going to put my family first and care for others" is not okay. It's seen as weak. We are punished if we stop work to care for others.

This value must change. And that's up to all of us.