Permission to Disengage

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  • A few weeks ago I read about the “right to disconnect” – a new French labor law that mandates companies of a certain size establish offline hours where staff cannot send or respond to emails. I don’t like this law, but not for the reason you may think. The French government constructed it with good intentions, but I believe it’s misguided because the hours during which people disengage from email depend entirely on how they work.

    Some people have their most productive hours between 8 a.m. and noon, while others prefer to burn the midnight oil. Some people have after-school commitments with their kids – dinner, homework, dish-doing dance parties – and others have personal hobbies or goals they’re pursuing. My point is that we all work in different ways and experience our peak productivity levels at different times of the day. As long as we feel we have permission to disconnect and re-engage, and as long as we are held accountable to perform at our highest standards, it shouldn’t matter when we send or answer emails. But permission is the first hurdle that many companies struggle to get past when trying to instill work-life balance. 

    Permission to disengage starts with leadership, and it’s largely driven by the example managers set for their teams. Work, especially at startups, can be all-consuming. But I have things I care about outside of work, including my family and friends. So a few years ago I started setting a New Year’s resolution to not check email on Saturdays, sunrise to sunset. The first year, I didn’t do a good job of sticking to this resolution. I succeeded just five out of 52 weeks. The second year, I got 10; in 2016, I got 20. We’ll see how I do this year (I’m four-for-four so far). I’m actively taking steps to disconnect and encourage my direct reports to do the same.

    Permission from leadership only works if it’s also peer-enforced. If everyone around you is responding to email at all hours or staying at the office until 2 a.m., you feel like a slacker if you don’t do the same. That’s where creating a culture that deliberately embraces and enforces work-life balance is crucial. One tactic I recommend is setting expectations when sending emails – for example, if I send an email at 11 p.m. on a Friday, I sometimes write “no need to reply until Monday”.

    When we started Zillow, many of us had families and young children, and we intentionally wove balance into the fabric of our company. This year we introduced a new benefit, Relax & Reboot (R&R), which gives employees who’ve been with us for a while a chance to totally disengage for up to six weeks. We also have policies like discretionary time off, where we let employees determine when and how often they take vacation. We’ve created a culture where we’re all accountable for delivering at the highest standards while achieving our personal work-life balance. And we hold each other to both.

    Thanks to smartphones, we are constantly connected to our colleagues and our work. The concept of “outside working hours” has died along with the landline. Prescriptive laws like the “right to disconnect” don’t solve this problem; they just make companies less efficient. It’s better to let employees be adults, encourage them to find their own balance and then create a culture that ensures they have every opportunity to do so. 

    Originally published on Linkedin Pulse. 

  • Spencer Rascoff
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