Today, I experienced what might be called a backlash to The Off Switch—not this blog, per se, but the general premise of being connected less. While there was no actual damage done from my intention to be out of touch, I am finding that merely the notion that I might choose to be unavailable by email has negative connotations.
If you don’t know, my wife and I own and run a small agency which offers branding, design, social media, and public relations services. We have about 25 – 30 clients at any given time and personally, I send about 120 emails a day —several times that if you consider press releases that go out to 200 – 500 media outlets at a time. The lion’s share of that correspondence happens 9 to 5 and the nature is just moving along projects with clients, media contacts, vendors, freelancers, co-workers, etc.
All to say that very little of what we do is terribly time-sensitive. I’d say 95% of people need a response within a few days and the remainder need a reply within a 1/2 day – although some things do beg for a quicker response. That being the case and having not used my iPhone to check messages for several weeks prior to completely decommissioning it Saturday, I had begun using the following message below my outgoing email signature:
I thought it was a simple way to let people know that urgent matters should be redirected and to let them in on my little project. I thought wrong. This afternoon, one longtime and very supportive client called to say that it sent the wrong message. Whereas I believed I was offering clients a more present, less distracted, better me… this client felt that I was broadcasting my indifference to communications and was putting myself at a disadvantage. This was a sobering, but much appreciated message as I had truly not intended to have clients or anyone else feel that way. Ugh.
Call it an idealistic notion, but what I had hoped is that colleagues would see that by fragmenting my time and attention less in meetings, during tasks, en route, and while at rest… everybody would benefit—including them. For instance, during a meeting, each person will get a me that arrives rested and centered and ready to focus on the task at hand. I will not be checking messages or thinking about the email I will write when I walk out of the room. Similarly, emails to them won’t be written with one hand at a stop light or in line at the grocery store. Sure—this might also mean that a reply comes an hour or two later, but it seemed like a good trade-0ff to me.
I thought about this a lot today and a good bit in the preceding weeks. As someone who works primarily by email, I considered the ramifications of these changes to my workflow, to my clients, and to my reputation. At its core, I think the tension of ideas here is the sense that effective PR, social media, and client service comes from agile response—that the value we offer clients is the always-on connectivity to people, networks, and news. In actuality, that is only partially true. Yes, we must be attuned to these things to be informed of the people and trends that make it all work, but in the absence of deeper connections and ideas, being connected and quick are ultimately meaningless. Ultimately, what we offer the marketplace is the ability to identify an emotional connection with something and then to tell that story in a compelling way. Doing it very quickly is not all that essential.
When I see someone in a limousine, I say to myself, “hey, that person had $150 to blow.” It’s not that they are rich or important—they just rented a limo. The same is true for people with smart phones or bluetooth earpieces or iPads or whatever. The gadgets don’t make them better at their jobs—not unless they are stock brokers or delivering donated organs for a living. If it adds something to your work-style or just makes life easier or more convenient—great. It no longer did for me, but that it not a statement on anyone else. Ultimately, breaking the perceptions around my own smartphone usage may well prove to be a challenge.
At the end of the day, what I’ve learned is that it is one thing to make a change and to have solid reasoning for that change, but it is another matter entirely to broadcast that change out into the world. I’ll have to keep in mind that people may well take offense. Although this shift is entirely personal, it is inevitable that people in my personal and professional lives might take it as a statement about them or our relationship to one another.
In closing, work colleagues should know that I will be just as available for time-sensitive and urgent needs as before. If there’s a PR crisis or if you just get pinned under an armoire, call me or text. Alternately, you can shine the Wyatt Brand beacon in the sky and we’ll be there. And when I arrive, you can take comfort in knowing that I’m gonna really be there. Totally there. Totally.