Permission to be offline

handwriting with pen on paper on a desk with paper notebooks and a cup

At the secondary school I went to in the late 80s and early 90s, my dad was the deputy headmaster. This did not make life easy, nor pleasant, for the most part. However, the fact he had an office to himself meant there was a place to dump football kit, cricket bags and other bits and bobs that were a pain to carry around. I still remember that office clearly.

I remember a computer arriving in that office, probably around 1990, and I remember how it was set up. On the right side of the room, as you entered, there was a desk and a chair. In the back left corner, there was another, smaller desk, which had the computer on it and a dot matrix printer next to it.

So in one office, for one person, there were two workspaces. Not online and offline, because that computer wasn’t connected to the internet, but the distinction is similar. My dad did most of his work, with pen and paper, on the “big” desk and used the computer when he needed to use a word processor or whatever.

Now I’m not going to advocate for everyone to go out and get an extra desk and have two of them but consider, for a moment, as I’ve been doing recently, what it means to have a desk, with a computer on it, where you spend most of your working day. And it’s not just that it’s switched on, your computer will be online, a window to the world beyond that screen, open and ready whenever you want to step across the threshold.

Alternatively, you may move around your house and take the laptop with you, but working means sitting at the computer… staring at a screen. And many of us are working in a “collaborative space”, like Microsoft 365: Teams + Sharepoint etc, or Google Workspace + Slack. It’s almost like we EXIST, for the purpose of work, inside that virtual space.

The green icon is showing: I’m AVAILABLE.

I’m red, I’m yellow. I’m a fecking traffic light.

Recently, having gone back to working in a team as something more like a permanent employee, rather than as a contracted freelancer (it’s slightly awkward at the moment, but suffice it to say that this remote work malarkey isn’t always easy when it comes to tax residency and employment law), I’ve begun to notice that working in this way — mostly permanent employees, working full-time, all online — pushes us towards developing habits that are actually quite odd and potentially unhealthy.

When it’s a team of freelancers I think this is less of an issue, and that’s mostly been my experience as a remote worker previously. Now many people are remote workers but experience this differently. This is not to say that the company I’m working for is making this happen. This is really what I’ve noticed happening in my head: the feelings I have, the habits I’ve got into, and the ways in which I’ve been thinking about how I work.

But back to the two desks…

Whether or not this is a physical space issue or an attitude, it doesn’t matter. What I’m thinking about is an idea that I think is true for the most part, that work only happens online. Slack actually uses the slogan: “Where work happens”.

Does it?

In an L&D sense, in projects I’m working on and in online discussions, we’re talking about designing learning experiences and making content available “where people are”. And where is that? It’s Teams. Or Slack.

So we are now our profile pictures. We are avatars. It’s getting a bit Matrix-like and I’m trying to fight it! And I’m increasingly wondering about the sanity of this attempt by L&D to “meet people where they’re working” which means creating even more of a sense that everybody exists in these online spaces.

If you’re a so-called “knowledge worker” like me, we tend to use our brains for work. We aren’t moving much or doing any heavy lifting. We often don’t really move for hours and even have to set up reminders to actually get up. The more I think about this, the weirder and more ridiculous it gets.

We use our brains that contain the knowledge we use to create stuff. We make things. From learning design plans to media content and storyboards, to reports, proposals, case studies, blog posts, briefs etc. We produce things that happen to be digital because it’s easier to share them with other people. The end result of our thought processes is usually a digital artefact. But what is the work?

Getting from A to B doesn’t mean we have to sit at a desk in front of a computer screen all day. It doesn’t mean we have to be online all day. We shouldn’t have to be available all day. I’m lucky that this is the attitude of the team I work with. People are around, or not. There’s seemingly no problem with “disappearing” for a bit, to take the dog for a walk, hang the washing out, or get a coffee. I feel lucky.

I suspect this isn’t the same for lots of people who, whether through their own fears or their managers’ behaviour, worry about leaving their desk for long, just in case someone notices that they aren’t there. And communication in many workplaces tends to be quite ad hoc so this ends up happening.

What if the boss calls randomly and I’m not there? What if they notice I’m on ‘Away’ for longer than 5 minutes? But it doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter.

It reminds me of people sewing in sweatshops who are treated so despicably they aren’t allowed to leave their position for hours on end.

We should be able to switch the computer off completely if we want. Go for a walk and THINK about stuff. Move to another space that doesn’t have a computer on and work in a notebook – a paper one.

Something that enables this, in fact, empowers people to do this, is a well-organised communication strategy. It involves excellent asynchronous communication and planned synchronous communication. People rail against online meetings, but if there are regular meetings planned into a structured schedule, then at most other times people can be offline and working on their tasks without any fear or doubt about being unavailable. Unless there’s a real need to be regularly contactable for emergencies, what’s the real point of being online? Often, it’s to show that you’re working. Even though you might just be scrolling Twitter, when your status is green you’ll probably get away with it.

So while scribbling on my office whiteboard the other day, I wrote this…

For many reasons, ad hoc comms really works against having this permission to switch off, not to mention concentration and productivity. There are various apps and productivity strategies for avoiding the internet, to focus on work. To Blocking social media and notifications, just so we can work, no, exist online in order to be at work. It’s madness.

JUST SWITCH IT OFF!

Allow people to do this and we might all stay sane, get some work done and enjoy it.

Thanks for reading! If you’ve got any thoughts on this post, I’d love to read them. Let me know below.

Featured image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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