Illustration by Gabriela Tylenda
Illustration by Gabriela Tylenda

Work Culture

Breaking free from always-on work culture

By

Published on December 12, 2023

Filed under

Reading and replying to work emails on your personal phone can make you feel available to your team 24/7. The feeling intensifies if you’ve downloaded one of the many team collaboration apps to your device. Answering a ping after hours or shooting off a quick reply before your morning coffee has become the norm for a lot of workers: A recent Dropbox-sponsored Economist Impact study showed that 63% of employees feel that they have to be available all the time.

This always-on mindset—symbolized by the growing number of traffic light-style status indicators in collaboration apps and the omnipresent ping of new emails—blurs the lines of work and personal lives. But does an always-on-duty mentality actually lead to a more productive workplace? According to some experts, not really. 

“You can have high expectations for yourself and your team without being beholden to your phone every second you are awake," says Tom Linnemann, a leadership and team-building consultant. Linnemann works with behemoth brands like Target, as well as Silicon Valley start-ups. Recently he’s been advising young mentors in the Futurpreneur program. Much of his advice centers on the idea of cultivating deep, focused work during business hours.  

Does an always-on-duty mentality lead to a more productive workplace? Not really.

Linnemann notes that the insight and focus needed to reply to an important email often don’t come when you’re overstressed or in the middle of the night. “In fact, if you’re replying to messages at odd hours it may signal to others that they should be doing the same. That can create unhealthy scorekeeping among team members,” says Linnemann. “It’s important to be present and alert when you’re on the clock, but you can’t be on the clock all the time.”

Maintaining a solid work/life balance has all sorts of proven benefits. It’s better for your health. It leads to increased feelings of job satisfaction and security. Still, there is a persistent mentality, especially in North America, that you need to be overly available to your job to make real gains in your chosen field. That pressure is an easy recipe for burnout. It shows in the numbers: 77% of employees say they have experienced burnout at their current job, while 83% report that burnout negatively impacted their personal relationships.

So, are your collaboration apps showing that you’ve got green light syndrome—you’re available at pretty much any time, as indicated by the little green light beside your name? You might want to create better boundaries. We’ve put together some helpful tips below. 

“Replying to messages at odd hours may signal to others that they should be doing the same.”

1. Use status indicators and do-not-disturb modes effectively.
The same status indicators that signal constant availability can be used to communicate when you’re not available. Most work apps and email systems have do-not-disturb and sleep modes, allowing you to choose when you receive notifications. Although this adjustment might seem minor, it can significantly reduce the temptation to respond to work communications during your personal time.

Erin Pash, a licensed therapist and CEO of Ellie Mental Health, emphasizes the benefits of this approach: “The messages will be there to respond to, they just won’t be alerting you, giving you some peace. Most folks find that by protecting their time at work more effectively during the day so they can get more done, they don’t feel as much guilt or need to log in after hours.” 

2. Leverage “scheduled send” features.
Scheduling your messages to send during work hours means that you aren’t hitting folks with notifications while they’re out for dinner or after they’ve put on their pjs, even if you’re the one putting in some extra time off the clock. It’s very rare that any message you’re sending out can’t wait until the morning. If it's truly crucial, consider a phone call instead. By making scheduled emails and notifications the norm, it sets a good precedent for everyone in your workplace.

As Ian Mathias, a brand consultant at IDEO, points out, this approach is crucial in leadership roles: “Most teams are reluctant to talk to leaders about work/life balance unless they are near a breaking point, and they don’t normally push back on late messages. So if leaders don’t establish agreements on how we communicate after hours, the problem won’t surface until a lot of damage has already been done.” By adopting scheduled sending as a norm, you set a positive precedent in your workspace, demonstrating respect for everyone’s personal time and encouraging a healthier work-life balance.

It's very rare that any message you're sending out can't wait until morning.  

3. Have a separate device for work and personal use. 
Separate your work and personal life by using different devices when possible. A distinct computer or phone for work helps keep job notifications separate from personal ones. If it's not feasible to have separate devices, try allocating specific hours for work and personal activities on the same device. For example, dedicate it to work-related tasks during your official hours and switch to personal use afterwards. This method helps establish a clear boundary between your professional and personal time.

4. Set personal boundaries, and be consistent about them. 
Creating a solid work/life balance starts with establishing boundaries for yourself and sticking to them. Recognizing and abolishing behaviors that fall outside those boundaries is the next step. Occupational Therapist Alex Fox emphasizes this point: “Do what you need to do to reduce your work-related anxiety and stress, and then also put in work to set boundaries with other people—for example, that you won't reply to their messages outside of certain hours.” Clear communication is crucial in a healthy workplace. It's important to discuss your duties and your time with your manager openly, ensuring work doesn't spill into your evenings or weekends.

5. Develop a wind down routine.
Wind-down routines aren’t just pre-bedtime activities. They're a series of tasks you do to wrap up each workday, signaling to your brain that you’re transitioning to 'life' mode, especially important in the work-from-home era. Maybe that ritual includes stepping out of your home office and closing the door. Maybe it’s putting your computer away in a designated space. It could even be a series of really good stretches. An effective addition could be jotting down key tasks you need to tackle first thing when you return to work. This gives you a better shot at a focused start the next morning, before the emails, pings, and messages kick in. Sometimes the best way to stay focused is to fend off the distractions in advance.