Many employees feel the need to be ‘always on’ because of the capabilities of technology, potentially leading to “technology addiction”. Are employers responsible for this and do they encourage the behavior by rewarding quick responses from their staff? Are employees responsible for setting boundaries? And if we hold employers responsible for tech addiction, does that apply to other areas, such as blaming employers for lung cancer because employees can smoke on-site?
Caleb Backe, with Maple Holistics, believes the responsibility is on the employee to set the boundaries. “Just because you can be reached, doesn’t mean you should make yourself available. There is nothing wrong with setting work hours and sticking by them. It often makes you that much more productive when you are on the clock.” Frances Geoghegan, Managing Director of Healing Holidays, agrees. "An employee should cherish their time away from work and take it as an opportunity to recharge and detox from the technology they use at work. This helps to renew their energy and enthusiasm for their job."
But when employees are rewarded for quick responses, like with an any behavior, rewards encourage the continuation of that same behavior. That said, Backe still believes "billable hours… should be set by you. And if you do your job well, it is up to the employer to have the foresight to retain you and keep you on board, regardless of your off-hours availability." Leigh Steere, with Managing People Better concurs: "In this tight labor market, where some employers are having a hard time filling positions, employers can make themselves more attractive by implementing policies that encourage electronic moderation."
Although establishing boundaries may not be the responsibility of the employer, “they should state that they don't expect their employees to keep working once the working day is done,” notes Geoghegan. When employers are explicit about this, it sends the message that disconnecting is okay. Steere recognizes that employers set the example - both good and bad. "Employer policies can make it easier or harder to set these boundaries. Some managers in the workplace set a poor example by checking their phones during every waking moment, even while on vacation."
Eric Hobbs, the CEO of Technology Associates, acknowledges that boundaries - or lack thereof - set by managers does trickle down to employees. "Communication in the workplace is a huge component of a company's culture. We never encourage our employees to be 'always on' and we lead by example. We follow the same communication hours policy to demonstrate that we understand and respect their boundaries, as much as we expect them to respect our boundaries as well."
Perhaps the issue of whether to blame technology is not even the right question. "Technology-blaming is often a scapegoat when the use of tech, not the actual tech itself, causes issues. The same can be said with the growing epidemic of hyper-communication among employees, often attributed to the modern workplace's communication tools,” noted Hobbs.
Hobbs continues by noting "both employees and employers are guilty of doing things that exacerbated this situation. However, I do think that employers have more power and greater responsibility to curb this 'always on' mentality. In our case, we have a significant percentage of remote employees working across different time zones in our workforce. From day one, we have clear communication guidelines in place and we train our team members on how to communicate asynchronously. Everyone knows when team members are online and ready to answer urgent questions. Otherwise, everyone understands that they will get the response they need within 12-24 hours."
It does seem the issue needs to be addressed in some capacity, and well before a person enters the workforce. "You can see this by looking at any elementary, middle, high school or even college, where students have no need [for school related things] to be constantly on their phones while at school or after, but they are anyway, checking all their social media accounts, playing games and texting with friends,” says Stacy Caprio, Growth Marketing.
If people are rewarded for availability more then productivity early on, those behaviors will only be reinforced when they are in the workforce. The way people use technology at a young age can increase addictive behaviors that only get worse as adults. Behavior change by both employees and employers can have a positive influence towards helping people become masters of technology rather than being mastered by it.