Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Technology — Friend or Foe?

I was recently out of state for two weeks to attend meetings and work with Alaskan boards holding retreats Outside. In between work related activities, I took a few days to relax having just completed a couple of non-stop months at work. Planning for time on and off the clock during this trip was, in hindsight, not the best strategy to chill. But I was grateful to be able to spend quality time with my wife in some nice places.

When I returned to the office, I was compelled to write this article. I have been thinking about these issues for a while but those few days off provided the clarity I needed to better express my concerns. Now, in preparation for the summer, I want to share my thoughts with the hope that those of you who want to relax when you are out fishing, on a hike, or just spending time with family this summer have a few new tips.

The point is that I think we need new rules about technology, work, time off, and face-to-face communication. We need to take responsibility for our connectivity. And we also should do a better job of taking care of each other on the issue of staying connected so we all can spend quality time at, and away from work. Many people, me included, need to better manage our too easy access to too much information. Too much technology too often is a problem while we are at work. It is an even larger problem when we are supposed to be off. Unfortunately, we allow ourselves to be connected to work, even when we are off, and that is not healthy for us, or our organizations.

In the landmark book Future Shock published in the early 1970’s – when dinosaurs still roamed the earth and a computer that filled a room could only produce a simple spreadsheet – its author, Alfred Toffler, predicted many of the technological marvels we now take for granted like laptop computers and faxes. He also accurately predicted many of the impacts that technology would have on our lives. However, one prediction was wrong – at least so far. He envisioned that technology would increase efficiency and that would lead to more leisure time. He may have been right about efficiency, but in my experience I have less and less leisure time because even when I’m off technology remains omnipresent in my life.

During this recent time off, I disconnected from email for four days. I put an “Out of Office” reply on email and voicemail to alert people that I was not available. However, when I reconnected I had over 1,000 messages to sort through – after just four days! I thought to myself, “Why even try to take time off to relax?” I think we all wonder how we can better manage what happens while we are out so re-entry is less painful. I am “slimed” with so many accumulated messages when I return that I have to work overtime to catch up. Many of us justify signing on when we are supposed to be off so messages don’t pile up – or is it that we have convinced ourselves we are so irreplaceable that we must stay connected because someone may need us?

The out of office function didn’t encourage people to leave me alone. Many of the same people that sent the first of those 1,000 emails continued to send more and more messages, even after seeing the alert that I was out. Did they think I wanted them to “keep me informed” even though I was off? And to make matters worse, some tried everything they could to get through to me in any way they could because I guess they thought that I really didn’t want to disconnect from them…… right?

Being disrupted by constant connectivity is also a problem at work. Frankly, I’m tired of having people texting or accepting calls while they are in a meeting. I know there are times when one must monitor incoming messages—like if a child is sick. But really, does anyone need to meet if they continue to interrupt conversation, again and again, with an “urgent” call? Or if they keep an eye on their email or text messages rather than engaging in the meeting, do they really want to be there?

I know some say this is a generational issue. But my increasing intolerance for emailing or texting during conversations began when my adult, Millennial generation, children confronted me with my own bad behavior. “Dad,” they said, “it’s rude to text while you are eating dinner with your family.” Of course, they were right. It is rude.

Another technology related issue came to light recently when a nonprofit executive called to see if we knew of etiquette rules for the use of technology during board meetings. While there is a growing, and I think appropriate, trend for boards to have laptops or IPads at board meetings so the board packet doesn’t require paper, too often it may tempt some to use their devise to catch up on emails, shop at Amazon, or even play a game during the meeting.

The executive that requested these rules wondered if his directors were texting each other under the table to gain consensus on an issue, or in some way manipulate the agenda. Unfortunately, we did not find many articles on this issue. One article we did find on tech etiquette had simple and frank feedback. It said that texting, emailing, playing games, doing anything other than staying focused on the meeting’s purpose, was just plain “RUDE”! (They must have spoken to my children!)

To be fair, there are likely generational differences when it comes to how people respond to constant contact through technology. Everything I have learned about Millennials is that they like the freedom of turning on and off work related activities throughout the day. In other words, they see the freedom to work when one wants as an asset. They want flexibility rather than a 9-5 day. My children know I am wrestling with these issues. They suggest that when I’m off, I just shouldn’t respond to emails or calls that are work related. However, I find that very difficult to do when I see an “important” message – then I feel I must respond. Maybe this new generation, having been raised with constant connection, can turn off and on at will? I can’t.

So, since we have not seen many useful guidelines on technology etiquette, nor for how to manage technology while taking time off, and even if Millennials may not need these rules, as long as we have aging Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers in the workforce, I will be so presumptuous as to suggest a few rules for situations that you or your organization may experience.

Basic email rules:

  1. Never respond to emails when you are distracted, angry, or after a drink.
  2. Understand that a dry sense of humor that can be easily discerned in a face-to-face conversation, or even on the phone though inflection, will often be misinterpreted in an email. Many friendships are impacted by the lack of visual and auditory input. Be clear and simple when you communicate by text or email.
  3. When you get an “out of office” response from someone, honor it. Stop emailing that person until their notice says they will return. Do not cram their inbox with old messages to decipher when they return from vacation. They will thank you.
  4. Stop sending “Reply to All” response messages. What are you thinking? That everybody has nothing better to do than to get “Reply to All” messages? Personally, I don’t care how everyone else responds to a message. If I want to respond to the original sender, I will. (While I was out in March, over 300 of the 1,000 emails waiting for me were “Respond to All,” thus my frustration).

Rules for texting or emailing at work, or off.

  1. When you are alone, text or email whomever you want for as long as you want.
  2. When you are with another person or group and no one seems to be engaged in conversation, it is appropriate to ask is anyone would mind if you caught up on your messages and then provide them with the same permission.
  3. When you are meeting with someone and you absolutely must keep an eye on your devise because of a pending emergency, ask permission to monitor for that emergency.
    1. If they do not give permission, re-schedule the meeting or turn the devise off.
    2. If they give permission, honor it by only responding to the declared emergency – disregard other messages…. no matter how much you want to read and respond.
  4. Never accept a call or respond to a message during a conversation unless you have followed the third rule.
  5. If you are in a meeting where someone does not follow these rules, suggest finding a better time in the future to meet so you can both be less distracted. Then when you meet, follow these rules.

Rules for taking time off and using technology:

  1. Understand that we need time away from work. Diligent auditors will ask if the key decision makers, check signers, etc. take time off away from the office and out of contact. The reason why this question is prudent for an audit is that too often people who are committing fraudulent activity never let go, so they can stay in control and continue their scam. A more important reason to take time off is that work should not be your entire life. Spend time with family or friends, take a hike, read a book. But whatever you do – take time off. Studies show that people who regularly take vacations are more effective and productive than those who rarely take needed time off. And time off means off. If you are checking email and voicemail, you are still at work. The Rasmuson Foundation is diligent in requiring their sabbatical recipients to not check messages – at all! And the sabbatical recipient’s office is required to never contact them, unless there is a real emergency.
  2. When you are off, make sure your land line voicemail, cell phone voicemail, and email declare your absence. Be specific about how long you will be out, that you will not check messages while out, and then give directions on who the caller should contact if their issue cannot wait for your return. (This actually worked during my time off. I typically receive about 20 calls a day when in the office. Only one person left a voice message during my absence!)
  3. Make sure someone in your organization will follow up with those issues that can’t wait for your return. Empower them to act on your behalf and trust them to do what is best. When you return, if they didn’t handle something the way you would have, it’s not the end of the world – it’s a learning moment for the next time you take off. Make sure they understand that an emergency is a death, a birth, not just an upset employee or client.
  4. As much as you like your co-workers, do not connect when you are away unless they, and you, have good boundaries so that neither you nor they will discuss work while you are off. Remember – being off, means being off. One of my closest work related friends is a pro at this. She never talks about work when she knows I am off.

Rules for technology in board meetings:

  1. It is appropriate, even beneficial, for board members and staff to have an electronic packet for reference during a meeting. Many boards have portals on their website with easy access to all important documents. There are resources online to assist boards with information dissemination. One of the most effective is BoardEffect. We encourage anyone with knowledge of other useful board information tools to blog at the end of this article so others may learn about these resources.
  2. Adopt a norm that the use of devises for any purpose, other than access to information during the meeting and for the meeting, is not appropriate. Have a rule that emailing, texting, surfing the web or playing a game is not allowed. It may seem ridiculous to have such a rule, but these distractions are disruptive to effective meetings. If someone has a pending emergency that they must monitor, like in the prior rule, they should declare that up front and seek permission.
  3. When the meeting has a break, then people could check messages as they wish.
  4. It is not appropriate for two or more board members to text each other during the meeting. If a director has a comment about the business at hand, they should speak so everyone can benefit from their insight.
  5. It is never appropriate for a director to text or email people not at the meeting with a blow-by-blow description of what is happening in the meeting. While most nonprofit organizations are not restricted by open meeting laws, and effective boards encourage transparency, the board’s conversation is the board’s conversation, in or out of executive session. It is best for the board to get to its “one voice” before others are informed on the proceedings.
  6. To date, it is not legal to have a formal vote via email in Alaska, or most states. Many boards poll members to gain input or insight; advice. This can be appropriate and useful. The only legal decision we advise via email would be through unanimous consent, which means all vote, and all vote the same. Even then, we advise issues addressed using email be discussed and affirmed at the next regular meeting.

Fortunately, I have many colleagues and family who frequently ask me to take time off. I am glad to oblige their requests. And while I work hard when I’m at work, when I take time off I have no problem not checking emails or voicemails – frankly I really like to disconnect. I have many witnesses that during the three-month sabbatical I was privileged to take in 2006, I did not check emails or voice mails once! My staff and board did what was needed to give me the time I needed.

We need to take time off. We need to not think about work when we are off. In order for that to happen, we must empower those at work to take care of business – and they will. And we must find a rational way to disconnect from our devises that disrupt our time away. Bob Johansen, a futurist, thinks it will take another decade before social norms catch up with technology. I can’t wait that long. I want to start letting go sooner than that and I want to keep working.

I need your help. When I declare that I am “Out of Office,” I don’t want to return and have to work double time to get through often out-of-date emails in order to respect the messages that really need my attention. I bet many of you feel the same. Let’s all try to refresh and refuel so we can continue to serve our communities.

It’s almost another Alaska summer. Take time off and enjoy. The good news is that there are still places in Alaska where our technology can’t find us!