In the bad old days it never stopped. It was relentless. Drip, drip, drip. Before 8am, after 9pm, weekends, bank holidays and during holidays. My phone rang off the hook. As my Nan would have said; “it’s like the telephone exchange” with you.
I was permanently attached to my phone and could never get away from the constant stream of demands, requests, questions and worse. It was the epitome of all that is wrong with some modern, connected, technology-enabled workplaces – the destroyer of any downtime or peace and quiet.
There will be folk who read this and say – as I always did when watching ‘Points of View’ – just turn it over; just switch your phone off; don’t answer. But that goes to the heart of the problem. It wasn’t the technology that was the cause but the culture. The ringing noise emanating from the phone was just a symptom of a much bigger problem. I knew that then but I know it even more now with my new life where work fits around life and not the other way around.
Getting the balance right is for me is about boundaries. It is about setting reasonable, sensible boundaries and having them respected.
My experience of corporate life – and I know it was similar for others who worked in other places – was that outwardly everyone was friendly and – mostly – when calling at any antisocial time or interrupting a holiday the caller would open with an apology’ “I know you’re on leave today, but…..” or “I’m sorry to call so late, but…..this is just a quick one……”. That qualifying statement – the notion of it being a quick question or managing expectations that it would be a short call – was the key rhetorical device used to explain away why the call couldn’t have waited. It always left me with the view that if you sounded friendly, said sorry, and indicated this would be a millisecond of your time it was fine.
In reality, it was part of the culture I saw up close because everyone – almost without exception in my experience – followed this approach. Culture is about what happens around here – the norms and behaviour that permeate the workplace. It’s not about the words plastered on walls or fed to you in screensavers. It’s about what people do, how they interact with each other, or as someone once said to me “its what happens in the workplace when no-one is watching”.
If people feel its ok to call someone who is on holiday and that person feels obliged to answer and be helpful then the organisation is saying that is ok. There is no use having “family friendly” policies and stress the need to respect work-life balance if you tolerate behaviour that flies in its face.
Rewarding the worse offenders – by promoting them – sends a terrible message – as does commenting on someone’s performance (I have seen this in so many organisations) by saying “he/she is always available or responsive” or “they can always be relied upon” or “they go the extra mile”; this is often code for “they are always working”. They are never off duty. They have no life outside work. This is profoundly unhealthy and damaging.
I see this all the clearer now as I am out of the toxic culture that is found in so many big organisations – examples of which I have seen first hand throughout my career. I notice it more now as my boundaries are respected by those around me and people don’t call or email when I am not around. Yesterday was a case in point. My day in Belfast with family was exactly that – no interruptions, no work stress brought to me by others who couldn’t help themselves but invade my personal space, given the blessing of the culture around them. I cannot remember a day off or a holiday where I wasn’t interrupted by a colleague. I remember so many occasions now – Mrs J could tell you story after story – where I was stood outside the restaurant on the phone or having to join a conf call when I should have been on the beach or taking it easy. I even recall sitting in the waiting room in hospital at the start of my exhausion-enduced pneumonia having told a senior colleagues where I was and him still continuing to contact me about a work issue. It’s no wonder I was so sick. It’s no wonder I felt so sick whenever the phone rang.
For those who are stuck in toxic cultures where those boundaries are not respected – where, like me in the dark days, you take a day’s holiday but spend much of it on the phone; where on holiday you sneak off, or formally arrange with your partner, that you will do one hour of emails or calls; where you see that dreaded “unknown number” morning, noon and night, there is a different way. There is a world out where it doesn’t have to be like that. You can reclaim your life.
If you are a serial offender; you are calling someone you know is on holiday or it’s before the end of the Today Programme in the morning or after the start of the One Show in the evening when you want to call them, think again before pressing that button. Take a breath. Be a bigger person. Stop. Don’t give in to that corrosive corporate culture that is crippling so many. Step away from the phone and remember that there are times – so many times – when silence is golden.