Why Scheduled Unplugging is Critical to Employee Success

by Elizabeth Dukes on January 27, 2016

Read Business Insider, Inc., Fast Company or any similar publication on any given day, and you’re bound to find several articles dedicated to employee output, such as “10 Ways to Increase Employee Productivity” or “15 Things Highly Successful Employees Do Every Morning.” While this sort of advice is certainly useful, it sometimes misses a key point. There’s one thing you may not currently require from employees—something that can help productivity soar: scheduled unplugging.

employee-working-on-beach.jpgAt first this may seem like an odd suggestion. After all, you already offer vacation time. And what about evenings and weekends? Don’t your employees have plenty of opportunity to relax and catch up on their to-dos not related to work? Theoretically, yes. Unfortunately, our modern business culture encourages an ever-connected, workaholic lifestyle in which it’s not unusual for employees to be sitting beachside with a piña colada in one hand and an iPad in the other.

And it’s not just on-call physicians sitting by their phones after their shift. According to Gallup, more than a third of working Americans frequently connect with work online after hours. From technology professionals to marketers, accounting specialists to consultants, hours upon hours of non-emergency work is being done off the clock. And what may simply seem like good old-fashioned work ethic can actually shatter productivity and destroy engagement.

So how do you ensure employees get the reboot time they need to ensure a successful, sustainable career with your company? Read on to learn more about scheduled unplugging and how you can achieve it successfully.

What is Scheduled Unplugging?

Since the 9-to-5 workday is going the way of the dodo, the beginning and end of a workday are becoming harder to define. While the increased flexibility offers greater convenience, it can also make it harder for employees to set boundaries. More often than not, we find ourselves working longer hours and extending the work week. Evidence suggests we’re literally working ourselves to death. A study at University College London found people who work more than 55 hours a week have a 33 percent increased risk of stroke.

But old habits die hard, which is why forcing your employees to disconnect is important. Scheduled unplugging is the practice of setting a predetermined block of time in which employees are forbidden to check work email, take work calls or do any other work-related activities. This could be as short as a one-hour lunch break or as long as a weeks-long vacation, and should be as much a part of your process as 401K contributions or monthly meetings.

But, how can you make scheduled unplugging part of your culture? Here are a few ways to get started:

Give Employees an Opportunity to Say “No”

As a business leader, you know the path of an overachiever. Sometimes, climbing the ladder means putting in a few extra hours and taking on additional projects. But there’s a fine line between going the extra mile and running yourself ragged. Unfortunately, your employees aren’t going to tell you when they need a break or when there’s too much on their plate. At least, not until you give them the opportunity. No one wants to be seen as a complainer, or as the team’s weakest link.

When you’re used to saying “yes” to everything, it can seem unnatural to say “no.” Let your team members know it’s OK to turn down a project if they’re already working at full capacity. Ensure they understand you’d prefer quality over quantity, and help them prioritize. Most importantly, don’t penalize employees for telling the truth about their workload. This way, they’ll feel more comfortable letting you know when they need a break to recharge and recalibrate their work-life balance, and you can reduce the risk of an unengaged, dissatisfied employee.

employees-office-meeting-evaluating-workload.jpgEvaluate Workload

In addition to having regular conversations with your team members about the amount of work on their agenda, be sure to consistently review workloads. Compare employees within each team to determine whether anyone may be carrying more than their fair share, and ensure team leaders spread tasks evenly. In many cases, your silent workhorses take on greater and greater amounts of work while others are all too willing to pass off their duties. Busy managers may not notice the unequal distribution of work because, as noted earlier, few employees are willing to share their dissatisfaction.

Not only will this reduce the risk of employee burnout and encourage greater collaboration, it also will help the team survive when a key player is out of the office. Instead of frantically pulling in additional resources to bear the burden, teams will be prepared and know their anticipated increase in workload ahead of time.

Make It Mandatory

Few people will take advantage of scheduled unplugging if it is offered as a suggestion. Instead, it should be required of all employees. To ensure compliance, some companies even offer additional incentives—paying employees bonuses for taking time off. In 2011, for example, Redwood City, Calif.-based Evernote began offering employees $1,000 to disconnect from work for a week at minimum. Other companies, especially those in the technology sphere, have begun offering similar incentives to encourage scheduled unplugging.

Scheduled unplugging also should be allocated equally to avoid conflict and ill feelings between employees. If one team member chooses to take a week of scheduled time to unplug, other team members will be responsible for carrying the remainder of their workload. If those employees aren’t guaranteed the same opportunity for time away, they may feel frustrated and contemptuous. On the flip side, other employees may take advantage of the benefit and take more than their fair share of time away.

Asking your employees to unplug at regular intervals can sound like a threat to workplace efficiency and productivity, but this is far from the case. In our 24-hour, ever-connected, technology-addicted society, sometimes we need to be told when it’s time to sign off and rest. Requiring your employees to schedule a break will show them you care about their well-being and it will help them clear out the cobwebs and return to work energized.

The way we work is changing—rapidly. For tips on keeping ahead of the trend and ensuring a happy workforce, check out our free eBook, Wide Open Workspace.


Elizabeth Dukes

Elizabeth Dukes' pieces highlight the valuable role of the real estate and facility managers play in their organizations. Prior to iOFFICE, Elizabeth was in sales for large facility and office service outsourcing firm.

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