Why you should care

Because we need more human interaction and less screen time.

Soon after Marcela Sapone and Jessica Beck started Hello Alfred, an app offering concierge services such as grocery shopping and cleaning, they reasoned that to grow the company, their employees needed to pause to reflect in the middle of the workweek. Employees would benefit from a break from operations and meetings. In 2014, the company made Wednesday a “recovery day.”

Employees would not visit clients’ homes or offices. “When a client asks, especially if you have a VIP or a big-dollar request, it’s hard to resist. Once you explain, clients understand,” Sapone says. Rather than drifting away, clients adapted, sending requests on Sunday nights or before the weekend.

A year ago, the founders realized their employees were trapped on a techno treadmill, so they dialed the recovery day down another notch.

They considered introducing a tech-free day but decided that would be draconian — and after all they were a tech company. So they went “tech light,” encouraging staff not to use their phones, and turning off email and other instant messaging programs. All staff were discouraged from using Slack, the internal messaging system, and they were asked to prepare social media posts the day before.

If you are constantly online and constantly think about work, it will drain your mental battery.

Maths Mathisen, co-founder, Hold

By holding a weekly tech-light day, Sapone and Beck hope to find a solution to a widespread problem: a lack of focus, with staff flicking between social media and electronic messaging systems.

Their policy may encourage employees to take a break from being always on. As Martin Talks, a digital culture consultant to companies, puts it: “In a time of increasing artificial intelligence we all need to develop our emotional intelligence, which is a skill robots struggle with. You won’t do that by constantly checking your phone for emails, alerts and status updates like some sort of work automaton.”

Other companies ban phones from meetings. Some, like Michigan-based Menlo Innovations, do not allow electronic communications between employees in the workplace.

“We sit in one big room and use what we call high-speed voice technology,” says co-founder Richard Sheridan. Some German companies have banned out-of-hours emails. In France, companies with more than 50 employees must allow staff times when they can ignore email.

Technology itself does not necessarily drive bad habits. Managers who expect instant replies to emails at all times of the day (and night) can cause employees stress. Much depends on individuals, however — some people are perfectly capable of focusing on the job, undisturbed by social media or Slack.

At Virgin Management, which oversees the group’s various brands, email is switched off on all 200 employees’ devices every Wednesday afternoon, in both London and New York, for one hour. CEO Josh Bayliss believes this electronic downtime has encouraged people to get up from their desks and share ideas. “Initially people were very uncertain,” he admits.

Hello Alfred’s Sapone says the tech-light policy met resistance at first. “People felt they were being told what to do,” she explains. “Framing it positively was important. We tell employees the intention behind it.” The language is key, so it is an “invitation,” not an “imposition.”

Hello Alfred’s software engineers laughed at the tech-light idea, Sapone says, but they discovered it gave them a chance to work on problems such as recruitment. And the engineers, she notes, are still allowed to code on that day. They now extol the virtues of being able to concentrate on deep work without distractions.

Claire Morris, head of design at Founders Factory, a London startup accelerator, has worked at companies with tech-light regimens. “If everyone isn’t on board, things fail,” she cautions. Senior leaders need to practice what they preach, she says, otherwise it “descends into chaos.” Sapone agrees: “If I start to use Slack, others might go back to their workstations and go on Slack. I can’t do it.”

Mobile-free meetings can also be problematic, says Morris: “People have Apple watches, so they sneak a look.” Culture is important, she adds. At the product team’s innovation meetings, participants ignore their phones as they enjoy the buzz of a creative discussion.

Staff at Hold, an app that incentivizes students to stay away from smartphones and concentrate, use their own product. At the weekly update meeting, the employee who has used their phone the least is rewarded with a prize, such as lunch. Maths Mathisen, co-founder of Hold, says, “If you are constantly online and constantly think about work, it will drain your mental battery.”

The company encourages employees to look at their email only twice a day, and they promise to respond to messages within four hours. They do not, however, ban social media or block emails. “It should be a positive choice,” says Mathisen. “Rules feel punitive.”

Tips for going tech light

  • At Hello Alfred, tech-light Wednesdays induce a “positive hangover,” says Sapone. Her employees’ use of Slack is substantially lower after a 24-hour break than at the start of the week.
  • Sapone’s tips for a tech-light regime: Sell it to clients as a way of better serving them. Frame it positively to staff rather than as a draconian rule. Repeat the message regularly, lead by example and be open about experimenting.

By Emma Jacobs

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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