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Opinion

The inhuman cost of endless connectivity

Opinion

Endless connectivity is eroding the capacity of employees to enjoy uninterrupted time off – and that could end up having serious legal consequences, writes legal affairs commentator Morry Bailes.

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The Christmas break period usually sees everyone down tools and take a proper break. It is typically the one time of year that people need not bother with the vicissitudes of business and kick back and relax. Not this year: this festive season I noticed a shift in attitudes.

While some may be able to afford to ignore the email inbox, I can’t. And what I found was, well, email. Lots of email. Enough email to show that a great many people had not stopped working, or that their break was an opportunity to gather thoughts and fire off emails. Scant regard was given to my out-of-office message. The best one could hope for was the old “if you’re still on leave” line, but no-one apologised and no-one appeared to make an attempt to avoid sending the next email. What world is this that we are living in?

As my colleague on the Future of Law committee at the Law Council put it when I bridled at such goings on, I was experiencing “the perils of relentless connectivity”, borrowing an expression from Richard Susskind. There you have it. In a few words my dilemma is summed up. I am both complainant yet perpetrator. I, like many, am caught in the advantages of “relentless connectivity”, yet find there is no such thing as a holiday in the conventional sense left to enjoy.

I recall the palaver leading up to the greatest IT non-event in recent history, the Y2K bug. My wife and I cunningly contrived to be in the place that we could think of (at the time) that was the least reliant on information technology, India, and travelled there for New Year’s Eve 1999. I remember fondly how we had quite literally no communication with those back in Australia unless we happened upon an Internet cafe. It was a break from everything – absolutely and completely. I can’t now imagine how I will enjoy that privilege again.

Since voicing my 2016 Christmas observations to others I have learned that email can be delayed, satisfying those who may have something not urgent but which is top of mind. I have learned of out-of-office functions that automatically delete incoming email advising, of course, the unsuspecting sender. But there is a deeper-rooted issue here that is unlikely to be cured by ICT fixes: the fact that we want our connectivity. Are we however prepared to live with the consequences? One is minded of the quote doing the rounds (probably wrongly attributed to Einstein): “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

While self-deleting email may be a step too far for most, trawling though an inbox of mindlessly irrelevant email on the first day back at work is, well, just stupid.

As a lawyer I am also intrigued by the legal consequences of failing to respect the boundaries of one’s employees. I can easily envisage a workers’ compensation claim for anxiety arising when an employee is unable to have an uninterrupted break. I think of legal remedies such as underpayment of wages claims and adverse actions that might be argued by an employee impacted by “relentless connectivity” under the Fair Work Act. I am not saying I have seen these examples yet at play, but the day is bound to come.

For me it becomes a question of where to draw the line, and in my opinion this is as much about basic courtesy, manners and attitude as it is about technology. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Where has our decorum gone? In my opinion, our present and accepted conduct has well and truly crossed the line. Is there any coming back?

Here are a few suggestions.

First, don’t send someone an email or message when they are on leave unless it is urgent. Just don’t. If you do it is about your convenience, not theirs, and that is placing your interests above others. And if the email is going to an employee you may ultimately be inviting legal consequences.

Second, find ways to lift the load for those on leave. They do not have to remain on the “everyone” email list, as painful as that may be for the long-suffering ICT manager to constantly update. While self-deleting email may be a step too far for most, trawling though an inbox of mindlessly irrelevant email on the first day back at work is, well, just stupid. It is discouraging and downright unproductive. Why would any business not do everything to avoid such a scenario? Yet in a world of “relentless connectivity” it has become a familiar and depressing ritual. I suspect a primary reason why people check email while on leave is to alleviate this very experience when walking back into the work place.

Third (and this one is also for me) – exercise some self-control. You don’t necessarily need to look at digital devices while on leave, certainly not constantly, although for many in business or who look after clients and customers there may be no choice but to keep an eye on things. That, however, should be reserved for urgent matters. As for those who say they just need to “stay on top of things”, perhaps you need to get over your relevance issues and get a life.

Fourth, get some manners. Unless a recipient says they want email while on leave, an out-of-office message should be construed as meaning “I don’t want your mail”. I am tempted to tighten my message up for next time. It will not be fit for publication here however. Even if an employee invites email, why? Do you have a corporate policy dealing with the subject? A court may want to know that at some stage. The duty of care lies with the employer. While we all seem to suffer from “irreplaceable” syndrome, to a greater or lesser degree, (lawyers erring on the greater end of the spectrum, sigh…), the undeniable truth is we are wrong on that front almost all the time. Put a little faith in others – it may surprise you. Finally, recreation leave is recreation leave, whether it’s a shorter or longer period, whether it’s in this hemisphere or the other.

When our lives are no longer our own it is time to change. It is not acceptable that the norm ought be that we are contactable all of the time.

We may be in the 21st century but our manners, quite frankly, are better drawn from the 19th. Advances in ICT have made some of us self-interested, introverted and rude. What’s more, we don’t question it. We wear the fact that our time is no longer our own, and in a world of “relentless connectivity” we feel an obligation to incessantly and thoughtlessly interrupt others, because we have forgotten common courtesy. It is unhealthy, it is draining, and it is ultimately detrimental to business.

There is no denying the advantages and enablement of our present ICT world. The flexibility offered is extraordinary and there are huge upsides. But it is time to recognise an insidious downside. When our lives are no longer our own it is time to change. It is not acceptable that the norm ought be that we are contactable all of the time.

There are both psychological as well as legal implications for both employees and employers here, and they should not be papered over. We have allowed, permitted and encouraged a dangerous cultural shift, concentrating only on the good bits that ICT can offer, while largely ignoring the bad bits. If an argument for abetter standard of decorum will not win the day, then maybe the ultimate erosion of productivity for business, caused by burnt-out employees, may.

All that said I am Generation X. Author Erik Qualman said: “You’re talking about a younger generation, Generation Y whose interpersonal communication skills are different from Generation X. The younger generation is more comfortable saying something through a digital mechanism than even face to face.”

In a conversation about culture we must accept generational cultural difference, yet in this topic there are lessons for everyone: about maintaining civility, about setting boundaries and about understanding that living without relentless connectivity on occasions can be a very healthy thing. Anyway, the fact that a person may be more comfortable conversing in the digital environment still does not justify incursions into private time.

Finally, there is the lesson that as technology advances it is increasingly unlikely that technology itself will offer ways to save ourselves from its relentless barrage. It is up to us to recognise and combat some of what is undesirable in a digital world, a world where there is, at times, the sense of no escape.

My Secret Santa present within the firm last year was a small book entitled 101 Things To Do Instead Of Playing On Your Phone. Thank you to whomever gave it to me. It is essential reading. It turns out there’s a big wide world out there that is anything but digital, and a least 101 ways to enjoy it. My advice is to better acquaint yourself with it. And to respect others.

Morry Bailes is the managing partner at Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers, president-elect of the Law Council of Australia and is a past president of the Law Society of SA. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

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