The Real Reason Your Company Wants You To Stay Plugged In All The Time

Before tools like Slack and email, people had to plan their work in advance. We’ve forgotten how to do that and are paying for it.

The Real Reason Your Company Wants You To Stay Plugged In All The Time
[Photo: Flickr user Rennett Stowe]

In 2012, researchers at the McKinsey Global Institute reported that the average knowledge worker now spends over half their time at the office communicating about their work, and less than one-third of their time actually doing the job they were hired to do. Another study shows that over 75% of workers reply to emails within an hour, with close to one-third typically responding within 15 minutes.

The rise of team messaging tools like Slack only strengthens this culture of constant connectivity: Why wait 15 minutes for an email reply when you can grab someone’s attention instantly? “Slack has so successfully infiltrated how so many people spend their waking hours,” Samuel P. Jacobs wrote for Time last fall, “that the company is now working on ways to get people off [the service]—if only to let them get some shut-eye.”

Constant connectivity may be a habit linked with relentless social media and smartphone use in our personal lives as well as the consequence of implicit cultural pressures at work. But the fact remains that if employers found it damaging to their needs, they’d move fast to stop it. The fact that they’ve mostly done the reverse begs the question: What’s in it for them?

Who Wins When We Don’t Unplug

The answer to that might seem self-evident, but it isn’t. The most common justification for constant connectivity is productivity. We work in an information economy, after all: The more information you have, the argument goes, the more options you have to unearth new insights or make better decisions.

By and large, knowledge workers accept that argument at face value, believing that to work in an information economy is to spend much of your time sending and receiving information. As the tech startup Stripe puts it in an essay about why it encourages more digital communication, “Our experience has been that an ambiently open flow of information helps to provide people with the context they need to choose useful things to work on.”

The other supposed reason we’re asked to stay plugged in all the time is to collaborate with each other. A senior project manager once explained to me that he keeps on top of his inbox because he worries that at any moment someone on his team might get stuck until they receive a reply. If he stepped away, he feared, all work might grind to a halt.

The Cost Of Communication

However convincing these arguments may sound, they’re pretty flawed for the simple reason that communication–of any sort–has a cost. In the two years I spent researching my latest book, I’ve come to understand how critical the act of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task is for producing valuable results in an information economy.

Being able to work with depth and focus is a prerequisite to learning complicated things quickly, which usually leads to higher quality results (and more output overall) than what’s possible while working with fragmented attention.

Constant connectivity breaks time up into small slivers, making long stretches of unbroken concentration impossible and actually slowing down your cognitive function. By asking workers–implicitly or explicitly–to stay plugged in all the time, employers do their teams and themselves a disservice, trading long-term, high-quality performance for illusory, short-term gains.

And why? The answer is simple: It’s just easier. Playing a ceaseless game of digital badminton relieves you from the harder task of managing your workflow intelligently. Before digital communication tools came on the scene, knowledge workers had to plan in advance what they needed to work on and when. If you needed something from someone, you had to say so ahead of time, and regularly occurring tasks demanded carefully designed and maintained processes.

All of that is hard. Constant connectivity lets you skip all that effort. Since everyone’s instantly accessible, you can instead let tasks unfold in an ad hoc manner, fueled by an inefficient flurry of dashed-off messages. It’s easier, and that’s the problem.

High-value work, almost by definition, is hard. That’s why your employer pays you to do it. Since my company wouldn’t be too happy if I did the easier thing and took a two-hour nap at noon everyday, it’s tough luck for me. The same logic could and should apply to connectivity. Employees’ lives are made easier by tools that help them avoid the difficult task of organizing and planning their work, but because it makes them worse at their jobs overall, shouldn’t it be tough luck for them as well?

If an organization finds itself dependent on constant communication in order for its employees to know what to work on and how, then maybe the right response isn’t ever slicker, more efficient communication tools. Maybe it’s just a better set of workflow practices. Constant connectivity is easy—think of it as knowledge work for beginners. But to get the most out of an organization’s human assets, sometimes it’s necessary to put in the hard work nobody really wants to do, and unplug to do it.

Cal Newport is assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of several books, including the recently published Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.