The Right (and Imperative) to Disconnect

offlineThe big eye roll commenced as soon as the news was made public that the French had enacted one more law to ‘protect’ workers, adding to what many view as the French penchant for numbing their own economy with overly zealous social reforms.  Companies of more than 50 employees now must set up hours when workers are not supposed to send or respond to emails, normally during evenings and weekends, in an effort to aid work/life balance.

As the online journal Tech Republic questioned in its headline about this law, “A French law that gives employees the “right to disconnect” attempts to improve work-life balance by limiting email outside of work. But will it limit worker productivity?”

The debate will go on about the effects on productivity; the debate has already started in France about whether aspiring career-oriented workers will ignore the law in an effort to beat competitors for promotions.  And even the real intention of the law may not be realized as workers substitute other online demands for the ones imposed by their employers.  The fact is that ‘disconnecting’ may be something beyond our reach these days, as we’ve learned to be a society of technology junkies.  Even 80-year-olds ‘ask Mr. Google’ instead of their expensively-college-educated grandchildren when they want answers to life’s mysteries.

There may be very good reasons to disconnect to give us more time to spend with families and friends – but the real question dives much deeper.  Are there limits to what we can achieve with technology?  How do we retain our essential human-ness in a world that can run without human intervention (think self-driving cars)?  What will set us apart from machines as we move into the future?

The last two weeks introduced a couple of reflections worth considering.  First, a TED Talk featuring Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at the University of Oxford (http://www.npr.org/2017/01/13/509358157/is-there-a-limit-to-how-many-friends-we-can-have).  Professor Dunbar has made a name for himself by researching the number of ‘relationships’ a single person can have.  Forget your thousands of Facebook friends – Professor Dunbar has demonstrated that the maximum number of real, trust-based relationships a human can have is limited to 150.  So for all we ‘connect’ on social media, are we really connecting?

John, author of The Fitness Blog, made an observation after learning of Professor Dunbar’s work: “Recently, I cut my Facebook friends list way back.  It was very liberating actually.  Somehow, it really helped me feel relieved and like I could now focus more effectively on the friends I am connected with.”

So ‘disconnecting’, even non-work disconnecting, relieved stress/guilt and focused John on something meaningful to him.  Maybe the French are onto something.

The second reflection comes from Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN, a firm that advises companies on leadership and how to build ethical cultures.  Seidman suggests that there are limits to the technology revolution; that what will ultimately form the boundaries between technology and humans is the emotional capabilities of humans.  He points to humans’ ability to care, to inspire, to reflect, to dream – and to build trusting relationships.  Without the focus on those capabilities, we become a robotic society.  And therein lies another reason to take time to disconnect: to allow ourselves the time and the full expression of what will ultimately be the distinguishing set of leadership characteristics.  Once you remove the knowledge and thinking power that can increasingly be handed over to technology, what will set leaders apart is their emotional connections to others.  And that’s not something you can build on Facebook and LinkedIn.  It takes committed, trust-based relationships.  And that takes time.

All this talk of disconnecting so we have more time to play with our kids may be missing the far more important skills for creating our individual and joint future: disconnecting so that we can actually connect.  Maybe the French are onto something.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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2 thoughts on “The Right (and Imperative) to Disconnect

  1. Marge,

    Thank you for this article. I have shared it with my three children to affirm their quest for work-life balance.

    Bob Pavlik

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