The two Faces of Anytime, Anywhere

Posted on February 14, 2014 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion, Individual Solutions, Organizational Solutions

A cool idea (or so we thought) …

It really did sound like a great concept at the time: Work Anytime, Anywhere!

Catchy slogans like that always sound good, like Andy Grove’s prediction in the nineties of “Free MIPS, Free Bauds” (which is pretty close to reality by now). And the concept of being able to do your work from anywhere as if you were in the office, and at any time of your choosing rather than 9-to-5, seemed particularly cool – so liberating and exhilarating!

Everytime and everywhere

We in IT were certainly delivering the capability. Admittedly secure remote access was a bit of a hassle, and the earlier generation of modems were slow, but before long working from home – or a remote shared office – or a hotel – became as good as being in the office; even better if you consider the potential reduction in distractions.

And at least some organizations were wrapping the technological capability in the required support systems of policies and cultural norms, as I’ve helped Intel do. Telecommuting and other remote work options were becoming available to employees, and they loved it.

Très cool!

… and then something went wrong?

Over the years we got used to the ubiquitous connectivity, and we don’t normally question it. However, if you take a step back you’ll see that the Anytime, Anywhere of today is quite a different proposition from that of the nineties.

The symptoms are all around us: people are driven to distraction by the endless stream of beeps and alerts representing incoming phone, text and email messages. We can’t focus on any task without being interrupted every few minutes, with severe results for our ability to concentrate and think (I’ve looked at that in more depth here). We are always on call, always available to anyone – coworkers, friends, and the less welcome telemarketers and spammers – anytime, anywhere. Even on some flights, once a guarantee of a few hours of quiet…

In other words, Anytime, Anywhere has morphed into a major enabler of the Information Overload responsible for the loss of so much productivity and quality of life.

So what happened?

If you find a quiet moment to reflect on this, you see that the concept of Anytime, Anywhere was ambiguous, and it has morphed from one side of this ambiguity to the other. Back then, it carried this promise:

Anywhere you are, anytime, you will have access to your work – to your files, to your email, to any online resources you might need in order to do your job.

Today, the meaning is this:

Anywhere you are, anytime, others will have access to you – to your time, to your mind, to your knowledge – to anything they might need from you in order to do their job.

What a reversal that is! Obviously, the technology remains the same; it’s the culture – always the real culprit, where human activity goes wrong – that has changed. It has become acceptable in our work culture to access anyone with blatant disregard to their time, their priorities, their own good. This change, though rapid, has managed to creep up on us and to get ingrained in our expectations; so much so that anyone “daring” not to respond to email within minutes can expect censure from coworkers and managers.

What you can do about it

Although we see the first signs of a grassroots movement to disconnect from the pushed communications, most of us wouldn’t want to completely cut ourselves off. We need the connectivity; we just don’t need it to be an unselective open conduit into our life, time and priorities. What I believe  is really needed is a more refined granularity in what gets through at what time, in which place, and in which direction. We need anytime, anywhere connectivity to the Internet and to our mail – that’s fine. But we need to be able to use this connectivity when we want it and to shut it off – not access it – when we need some quiet time. Most important, we need for others not to have access to us when it can harm our productivity or privacy.

We need to be in control of our Anytime, and of our Anywhere. We, not others. Like in the nineties.

Technically, that is easy. Even the most sophisticated handheld device doesn’t have a wire hooked into our brain (this notwithstanding), and it can’t force us to pay attention; we can shut off the ring tones and buzzers, turn off the “You’ve got mail” alerts, and keep our interrupters at bay (telecommuting has made achieving this easier – if you have the courage to turn off the phone on occasion). Then there are numerous technology solutions that let you shut off distracting messaging streams, such as MyFocus and Inbox Pause; but the real issue, as we saw, is cultural and behavioral, so what you really need is to redefine your availability expectations and negotiate respect for your need to be available “Some of the time, Some of the where”.

If you manage a group, or have the courage to change yours from within without being the boss, you should look at group-wide solutions like Quiet Time, or even go so far as to block access to employees after hours like Volkswagen did. The solution guide I’m about to publish this month has a long list of interruption management solutions relevant to this quest for optimization, and should give you plenty of food for thought.


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