The Law of Unwritten Expectations
Where's the "Off Switch?"
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Today’s post is a look at the tacit expectations that remote employees and employers develop, and what we can do to avoid burnout in the always-on digital age.
Alright, let’s dive in.
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90 Slack messages, 150 emails, dozens of comments and notes in Google Slides and Docs, and a handful of voicemails and text messages. This was the ‘Welcome back’ package I received upon returning to the virtual office one Monday morning a few years ago.
Was I gone for weeks? Months? Maybe even years? Nope.
This was the result of a three-day weekend. Yep, that’s right. A Friday, a Saturday, and a Sunday.
Did I forget to plan and let people know I’d be out? Wrong again.
I spent weeks preparing my team, coordinating with other managers, and ensuring the I's and T's were appropriately marked.
Something had gone horribly wrong.
Or had it? Was this a feature, and not a bug?
Well, it’s a little bit of both.
Remote workers dodging the constant barrage of requests 👆
The Law of Unwritten Expectations
As humans, we naturally feel compelled to be busy — or at least look busy. Research shows that people always fill their time. We take on more work than we should in order to show others how busy and productive we are. We’re quick to confuse high demand with high value. And the more we push ourselves to be busy, the more we get addicted to that validation. The harder we work, the busier we are, and the less time we have.
As companies around the world shift to working remotely, they’re also working longer hours. According to data from VPN service NordVPN, U.S. employees are logging an additional three hours per day, compared to pre-COVID-19 patterns. For those of you following along at home, that’s a 40% increase. And that’s just the average. No wonder people are stressed.
Now you’re probably thinking, a large portion of that is likely due to additional meetings required by a virtual environment—and you’d be correct. The study, which analyzed anonymous email and calendar data from 21,000 companies, found that the number of meetings increased by 13%, but meeting duration fell by 11%.
In short, we’re spending a lot of time looking busy and making sure people “see” our contributions.
But why? What is it about remote work that triggers this reaction?
Remote work seems to tap into a part of our psyche that focuses on signaling value, and it can be difficult to unwind that instinct. In a world where your value is based on output alone, people are particularly aware of the risks of work. Remote work, primarily driven by COVID-19, has created a sense of urgency and a compounding need to overcompensate for external chaos. Managers, employees, consultants, and freelancers all feel the constant need to respond to message and always be “on.” The perception of competition is only increasing.
This is primarily due to what I call the law of unwritten expectations, which states that once one employee offers 24/7 availability, all employees must follow.
Managers may not directly communicate or require that employees be online/available 24/7, but the expectation is subtly implied through the communication channels within the organization. For example, when a manager that checks email late at night or sends an email on Sunday is subtly signaling their expectations to an employee.
This behavior can be particularly pernicious for a competitive employee in a competitive work environment. Not wanting to be outdone by their counterparts, many employees will step in and work as a measure to keep the upper hand or protect their position.
And, guess what—it ultimately leads to burnout.
I’ve personally struggled with this feeling many times. Many weekends where I set out to avoid work, only to find that my time away actually produces a massive dose of anxiety. That feeling of "I should be doing more," as if not working somehow diminishes the work produce during the previous work hours. No matter how many hours, the digital capacity seems limitless.
Breaking the Law
We all need time and space to unplug. Without a physical office to enter and exit, the boundaries all but disappear. A 2019 study in the Netherlands found that employees who disconnect after work—disconnect physically, emotionally, and cognitively—experienced improved energy levels, better sleep cycles, increased concentration, and more positive moods. More importantly, these benefits did not occur when an employee disconnected during a work break, meaning that true disconnection requires longer breaks of time.
In "Remote Boundary Management Styles", I examine the many reasons we need to create balance in the modern era of work:
A study by National statistics in the US surfaced a recent increase in work-life stress and the need to find strategies to manage our new normal.
Furthermore, a Families and Work Institute study reports that 75% of working parents do not have enough time for their children or each other.
Despite being more connected, a study by the IBM Institute for Business Value found that millennials value drawing a line between work and non-work to better enjoy a life outside the office.
Creating physical, psychological, and emotional boundaries allows remote employees and employers to co-create a more scalable and sustainable relationship. And for some, it’s critical to create pathways to fully disconnect.
Flipping The Digital “Off Switch”
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is experiencing what it feels like to be part of an always-on workforce. It’s increasingly difficult to find ways to escape work. But this isn’t new. We’ve been trending this way for years.
It all started with mobile devices, which created an open line between employers and employees, destroying work-life boundaries in the process. The freedom we gained from disconnecting the cord was quickly offset by our constant connection.
With mobile devices and lightning-fast internet in hand, the digital drinking fountain suddenly became a firehose. Tools like Slack and Discord made their way into our lives and opened up more channels, pulling employees further into the digital web.
And for remote workers, technology is what ties us to work.
So what do we do when we’re experiencing the barrage of messages I experienced during my weekend vacation? Can you shut off notifications from Notion, Slack, Gmail, and Asana?
The truth is: there is no digital off switch.
And without the off switch, employees are left to develop coping strategies for managing work-life balance. If we want a break, we have to create one for ourselves.
As I wrote in Learning to Block, we need help blocking so we can improve our:
Work-life Balance. You can’t spend every minute on the field. We understand this for athletes, and it’s no different for workers. Athletes need a break for water, coaching, and a change of perspective. Our work is no different. We need outside activities and space to increase creativity and productivity.
Pro tip: use calendar blocking tools like Reclaim or Clockwise to automatically block time for non-work priorities (e.g. working out, reading).
Productivity. Working remotely has both a positive and negative impact on productivity. It’s easy to push hard for a few plays, but it’s also easy to find yourself completely worn down and exhausted. You can run plays all day, but if you have to punt every time you get the ball, you’re doomed to fail. If we want to execute more, better, faster, we need to block our way to the end zone.
: put your devices away and explore a non-digital hobbie, like playing an instrument or doing a puzzle.
Mental & Physical Well-being. If you’re getting hit constant requests, sooner or later, you start to get tired of what you’re doing. Burnout doesn’t just happen, it develops over time, slowly and painfully.
: leave your desk and get some fresh air. Find a way to get your mind off of work — rest and refresh.
Now that we've identified the subtle way management is laying out remote expectations, we can start to properly tackle the problem and begin the process of renegotiating what it means to work in a remote world. But so as not to burn out, I’ll save that for a follow-up article.
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Thanks for reading, and see you next week,
— Kevin K. (@kkirkpatrick)