Despite what Tyler Brûlé writes at The Financial Times. Brûlé writes:
When an e-mail bounces back with: “I’m travelling on business in New York (or Rome, Taipei, São Paulo …) and will have limited access to e-mail,” such messages usually pose the following questions: is this individual employed by a company that can’t afford BlackBerrys or iPhones? Can this person not manage their time away from the office? Or are they simply away having a laugh at my company’s expense? Unless they work in the public utility business and are 200ft below the streets of New York repairing the sewers where there’s no mobile or wi-fi reception, I can’t understand the point of such messages.
For the record, I’m all for time off and taking it easy and disconnecting when and where appropriate. But I’m also conscious of the need to be responsive when one holds down a responsible job and when the livelihoods of many others depend on us keeping up to date and in touch. It’s for this reason that I find OOORs (out-of-office repliers) out of step with the ways of the modern working world. Occasionally, I meet conscientious objectors who don’t have mobiles and rarely use e-mail and I respect their decision to live in a less wired world. They’ve decided they want to live off-line and if you need to reach them then you’ll find them at the end of a landline or at a café at an appointed hour. OOORs on the other hand have been fully teched-up (usually by their employer) and use their replies as passive aggressive snubs to demonstrate their independence – not so much from technology but from responsibility.
This attitude reminds me of the NY maître d’ who never took a vacation because he was afraid people would realize that he wasn’t needed. In my experience, if you have a job where you actually do something useful, you can be out of touch. On the other hand, if you’re in the bullshit business (any number of them), you can’t afford to stop emailing, texting, calling and so on because your irrelevance might become noticed. But what really bothers me is that this assumes that one should always be available. Why? Certain jobs do require this. President of the U.S. Doctors on service. But most of the time, the issue is that someone else didn’t plan accordingly. They are having a crisis. You are not. If they managed their time better, they most likely wouldn’t be needing to contact.
Brûlé also writes, “people who like to post elaborate out-of-office replies not only dislike their jobs but also tend to be less entrepreneurial, poor team-players and, in many cases, lazy.” Or they just don’t reward bad behavior.
There’s another issue of prioritization. When I attended the ASM meeting last week, I posted an out-of-office reply. It served two purposes. First, everyone would know that I might not get back to them right away. Second, it lays out priorities. My priority, while I’m at the meeting, is the meeting. If it’s an emergency for me, then I’ll deal with it. If not, it’s going to wait. One of the hardest things for people to realize–and this is particularly bad in academia–is that your top priority might not be someone else’s top priority:
One of the good things about working at a non-profit organization for a couple of years is that it, to a considerable extent, took me off of ‘academic time’ and put me onto ‘business time’: if I emailed someone on Friday at 4:55pm, I didn’t expect a response until Monday (unless it was truly urgent–for the recipient). That didn’t mean that I didn’t work late or weekends on my things, but I didn’t automatically consider that others’ weekends were business hours. What’s worse is that we then encourage this bad behavior by responding (again, this is different if it is a genuine emergency, or a long planned weekend interruption).
The other source of bad management is that too many in academia can’t say the simple word no. Granted, sometimes it’s very hard or impossible to say no, particularly for an untenured faculty member. Even when there isn’t that power imbalance, someone wants to say no, but the concept of collegiality (which is abused ad nauseum) doesn’t permit it. If you do say no, people are often shocked, even if they spring something on you at the last moment. The idea that a collaborator will say, “No, I can’t, you didn’t give me enough lead time” is often novel–and more importantly, avoidable.
For example, I’m currently involved in writing several hundred pages of grants. When a colleague asked if I could get involved in another project, I said the dread word no. So said colleague tried again, and again, no. There is no available Mike for developing a project right now. Period. It’s not personal, but I have to get these grants done. I needed to be told about this months ago, not two weeks before a bunch of deadlines. Some long term planning was necessary, and didn’t happen.
In other words, being constantly in-touch reinforces bad work habits. It’s not laziness, but professionalism.