10 November 2010

When 24/7/365 Fails: Turning Off Work On Weekends

The Web has continued evolving since its inception, as have those who have devoted their professional lives to working in and around this massive communication tool. We have had to roll with the changes, and like with any major environmental shifts, we have had to adapt. During this shifting of our online existences, something quite interesting happened… interesting in a somewhat frustrating manner. The expectations of the client base, our colleagues and even our friends have risen to new, unreasonable heights.

Though this is not an isolated instance of schedule disrespect, we do understand that not every potential client or colleague is going to hold on to these extremely elevated expectations, so this post is directed only at those who do. Do not misunderstand, there is nothing wrong with having expectations about a profession, but when you allow those unchecked presumptions to take you to a disrespectful place, then a line is being crossed. One that we hope to clearly draw in the sand, for any and all of those who share in this frustration, with this article today.

What’s the Crux?

Basically, at the forefront of this disrespect is the issue of time. After all, timing is everything. And it further seems, that when it comes to time, it is always on the verge of running out on everyone. From somewhere, came this overwhelming sense of urgency that seems to have tightly gripped so many people and it is not letting up. And for some reason, they expect this sense of urgency to be completely contagious. For everyone to pick up on this pressing sense and let it push them into action as well. Which is understandable for sure, but it is not entirely fair.

It also makes assumptions that further disrespects these professionals and their other clients. It assumes that they can devote all of their attention and time to you and your project. Which just further implies an importance that your project has over any and all else. Which it does. To you. But can you reasonably expect the same from everyone who operates off or online, who has their services offered to millions of members of the public? One would not think so, but it happens. For some reason our time, no matter the professional arena in which we hang our hat, is considered 100% theirs once a contract is in place or the agreements are made and the work begins.

Suddenly like doctors who are on call, no matter the day or the hour, seemingly with no consideration given to our schedules whatsoever, we are expected to be available and at the ready whenever the client needs us. Our websites and e-mails are treated as virtual help desks that we should be manning 24/7/365. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for three hundred and sixty five days a year. No interruptions or distractions are allowed. Life, which typically has a tendency of getting in the way, is not permitted to do so for the actively, online business professional. How is that reasonable?

Once upon a time, there were those of us playing this business game who believed that it was completely unnecessary and unreasonable for us to take our work home with us. We’ve surely had times, when it was not easy to let the work stay behind as we clocked out, but it was not a constant element of our jobs. And there were those of us who believed that was just the way this game would play out. But we were apparently mistaken. It seems that to some members of the public, we have apparently connected dots which have led to a misunderstanding of our accessibility. What some might even label as a reluctance to understand rather than a simple misunderstanding.

Where Have All The Weekends Gone?

Time was, people would have a solid work week, which was commonly a day or two shorter than the full seven day cycle that filled our calendars. They would put in their forty plus hours squeezed into about five days and take two for themselves. It was not only welcomed, it became expected. But then something began to change. The landscape shifted, and those expectations were no longer extended to all fields of business. Including those whose business was largely, if not all, based online. Suddenly, these weekends were no longer sacred.

We were not allowed to be away or out of reach, not for a day, so certainly not for two. But why? Is this simply a reflection of the way that our ‘jobs’ are viewed by those outside of the field looking in? Is this a lack of respect, or is it something less sinister than that? Is it a personal thing that we need to cope with on our own? Is it a matter of self-organization and saying ‘no’ to people having such high expectations? Truth be told, it is almost certainly not any one answer, but more a combination of them. After all, we are dealing with a large segment of the world populous, so generally there is not just one route to the heart of this issue.

How Did We Get Here?

So just exactly how did we end up here? Maybe if we can understand how this came about, we can effectively combat these misconceptions that have led to this place of unrealistic expectations. This would make things go smoother for both the clients and the professionals involved in the project. When everyone comes to the table with reasonable expectations, there are fewer surprises to upset the flow and raise the stress level of the project. This is the best environment to work in, but we find a much more hostile one currently in its place. One that was wrought from a handful of contributors.

Oops, Our Bad!

First off, we should admit up front, that a portion of this blame could (and probably should) fall on our shoulders. So before we go pointing any fingers elsewhere, we should point the first one at ourselves. For years, many business professionals have been flocking to the Web and writing about the lengthy, dedicated schedules that we tend to keep, and how many long hours are involved in our choices of profession. Especially if our work centers around the Web. Perhaps this information has been completely misconstrued and misinterpreted into an endless accessibility.

Add the fact that many of us professionals get to work from home to that, and people surmise that means we are never far from our base of operations. This further leads down the road to people expecting us to always be checking in. After all, we are never going to be far from home, right? At least, not for any significant length of time.

The Mobile Web!

Another factor that helped bring about this landscape is the mobile Web and the near unlimited connectivity it offers. Given that a number of us have our businesses online, we are all expected to carry the Web with us any and everywhere we go. Thus eliminating any excuse for us to ever be out of reach. So many mobile devices bringing the Web into a more portable hand-held format was a game changer for many reasons, but this one was perhaps unforeseen by many in the online community.

Suddenly this Web trend exploded and connectivity not only became more accessible and common. It became an expectation. Especially for those working in the digital online realms, as we are seen to always be sort of ahead of the game when it comes to the digital media that shapes the Internet.

Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome

Sometimes, however, these unrealistic expectations stem from a fundamental lack of respect for the work that we do, particularly for those working from home or in any sort of creative field. Plain and simple, just like Dangerfield repeatedly lamented, we get no respect! There are always going to be people outside our field who cannot understand how much focus and finesse goes into our work, and as a result they undervalue our contributions.

Not only that, but there are those who underestimate the length of time it takes for the creative process to run its course. They think that we can just easily crank out the design, the code, the article, whatever the work is, with little to no effort. Therefore they tend to rush the project by setting unreasonable deadlines, essentially undercutting the effectiveness of the project.

The Weakened Economy

Another factor that could possibly offer insight into these expectations coming in way above reason is the decline in the global economy. Overall, the standard value of money worldwide has seen better days, and this has left many people needing to make their money stretch. This has seemed to leave them expecting more for their money. This could also put them in a less than trusting mood when they begin dealing with a faceless online professional who is virtually anonymous to them. They see little recourse should something go wrong, given that there is no physical source to travel to and personally take on. So they get a little nervous which can cause them to be excessively hands on. Unfortunately, their nerves do not get any better if they find that they cannot reach us when they need to.

Customer Privilege

The last road that led to this place we are going to look at here is one created by the corporate shot-callers of the past, and exacerbated by an entitled nature that many have adopted. Customer privilege. Or rather, the customer is always right, gone horribly, horribly wrong! Businesses around the globe sold consumers everywhere this bill of goods, and they ran with it. Believing that — no matter the context or situation — they are always right, and always deserving of our fullest attention whenever they feel they require it. The idea of other clients or projects requiring time does not work for them, because it is not their concern. They are priority number one in their eyes, and they do not understand that we do not share this outlook, because once upon a time, businesses everywhere, told them they were.

How Do We Proceed?

Now that we have got here, what can we do to alter this course? The road is already paved and everyone has been steered to this place, so what can we do now to reset this bar? Well, hopefully we can find some common ground of understanding and right this course as a team of professionals and clients. Going forward with a full comprehension of how we got to this place and why it is a bad place to be, we can start repairing these breaches that for too long have been a damaging bump in the business road.

The Under is Over

For starters, we have to agree to stop underestimating one another. This happens on both sides of the fence, so we as the professionals have some work to do in this area as well. We often underestimate our clients and their ability to fully grasp our concepts and ideas, so we try to work around them rather than work with them. So from both ends of the business relationship the underestimation has to end in order for some of these breaches to be corrected and the disrespect to stop. We both need to realize that it certainly takes two to tango in this case. Without the company, the client would be lost holding on to a concept that they cannot implement. And without the client, the business would have no work to finance their operation. It is a symbiotic relationship indeed.

Play it Passive

There are times when we have to realize that things will not change unless we force them to from our end. And this does not have to be handled in any abrupt manner that could potentially strain the relationship, in fact it can be handled quite passively. Just by simply ignoring these messages until we are back in the office (even if we never truly left it). Essentially, we can just set a schedule that allows us to take time off from urgent client calls — and also stick to it. Don’t allow the client or their concerns to encroach on our time ‘off’. The time we need to reset and unwind so that our creative outputs remain fresh and freely flowing.

This is not to say that we do not work on certain days, just that we put off getting back to people during those times. For instance, by simply explaining to your clients that you are willing to dedicate your weekend to your family and your personal life, they will respect you even more for your firm decisions.

Offer Other Outlets

Another thing that can be done to help alleviate some of these unreasonable access expectations is to let the clients know up front that through your standard contact information you have a 24 to 48 hour rate of return. This way if they tend to be the nervous type of client they expect to wait, and do not go forward with the idea that we are somehow always waiting at the other end of the proverbial line. This way they will not immediately assume the worst when they find themselves agitatedly lingering in antici…pation. Then you can offer them other channels to reach you in the case of emergencies. This can not only give them an added layer of peace of mind, but it can further let you know if what they need is truly urgent and needs to be addressed as soon as possible. If the contact comes through the emergency channels then you know not to put it off.

Virtue Takes the Cake

Patience, what seems to be a long forgotten virtue, needs to be revived in a big way. Losing our cool, especially in a professional environment is not the way to successfully achieve our ends. Generally, this actually actively works against you, essentially getting in your way. Patience is the way to understanding, and as we said before, understanding is important for bringing about this change. So we need to be more patient with one another and not allow everything in our lives to be chaotically run by this oft-times unnecessary sense of urgency. This applies not just to clients, but to all of us — colleagues, partners, and maybe even friends.

Learn to shut off work, learn to switch off your cell phone and learn not to check e-mails on Sundays. Also, learn to communicate your working routine to your co-workers, partners and clients. Feel free to get creative and explore your imagination on your own during weekends, but don’t let the work become an urgent tyranny that determines the way you live. We have to remember that there are times when we need to think about important things which are not related to work at all. Be it education, self-organization, personal interests, attending conferences, visiting exhibitions, recreation or time with your family. Planting the patient seed with each of our interactions will slowly help us achieve this goal.

Contractual Clauses

One thing that a number of professionals insist on using is a contract to guard against any unrealistic expectations or diversions from being introduced at any stage in the project, but especially in the latter stages where most alterations being asked for are usually game changers that will additionally add undue stress and extra hours of work. Therefore you can use this tool to your advantage to guard against such things. By including a section that guarantees any and all changes made will be allowed at least 5 to 7 hours (during workdays) to fully process and digest before any implementation will begin, can help to ensure that the client is fully thinking things through before turning anything over to you. They will know that no matter what they need done, time will have to be allotted and allowed before it can be enacted, so they may consider all of their changes more carefully.

Forget the Chest, Put Your Cards on the Table

The last thing that we can do on our ends to try and help keep the expectations in a more reasonable place, is to no longer play our cards close to the chest where no one knows what we are going for. Instead, we need to lay our cards out on the table so that there is little to no guesswork left up. If we are open and up front from the start as to our routines and expectations, then that can set a precedent for clients, colleagues and friends to follow in suit. Open dialog is going to be one of our greatest weapons as we try to change this direction and fix this course we are on.

In Conclusion

We are living in the age of instant gratification and unparalleled connectivity, and that has effected our expectations with regards to communication and business. And we are all going to have to adjust and work together in order to prevent the impacts of this age from straining our professional relationships. Hopefully we can work together to get to a place where the expectation levels are set at a much more reasonable height.

The above article was originally published at: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/11/05/when-24-7-365-fails-turn-off-work-on-weekends/