Friday, April 18, 2014

Connectivity and the Prisoner's Dilemma

Bay State Brahmin will be off on Monday in honor of Patriots Day. We'll be back on Tuesday, April 22.

“The peculiar problem of constant connectivity: any silence of more than a few hours provokes apocalyptic thoughts.”

-- Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King, 2013

Last week, labor unions and corporate leaders in France agreed on a framework to limit connectivity for at least 11 consecutive hours a day. This “obligation to disconnect from remote communications tools” is designed to ensure that individuals are actually able to be free from the 24/7, on-call demands that have come to characterize many U.S. workplaces, especially in the years since the Great Recession.

While France is (in)famous for embracing a blunt approach to labor regulations, there are certain contexts in which regulation short of absolute bans (literally turning off the switch) will invariably fail to achieve the desired ends. Indeed, the world of ever-present connectivity is just such a context—a classic prisoner’s dilemma where all would benefit from signing off and checking out, but the incentives are so strong for people to be constantly available that all end up feeling pressured to always be “on-call.”

As Allison Rimm, a management consultant, told the Boston Globe, “You can have all the policies in the world. But if you are the leader, and you’re sending late-night e-mails, that creates a certain culture. It’s a real leadership issue.”

Part of the reason why connectivity and the effort to achieve work-life balance constitutes a classic prisoner’s dilemma is that many people eschew the very idea of balance in the first place. As former General Electric Chairman and CEO Jack Welch said in 2009, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

And in 2011, Chief Judge Loretta Preska of the United States Court for the Southern District of New York issued a historic ruling in EEOC v. Bloomberg L.P., 778 F. Supp. 2d 458 (S.D.N.Y. 2011), stating:

The law does not mandate “work-life balance.” It does not require companies to ignore employees' work-family tradeoffs – and they are tradeoffs – when deciding about employee pay and promotions. It does not require that companies treat pregnant women and mothers better or more leniently than others. All of these things may be desirable, they may make business sense, and they may be "forward-thinking." But they are not required by law…In a company like Bloomberg, which explicitly makes all-out dedication its expectation, making a decision that preferences family over work comes with consequences.

I believe Preska’s interpretation of the law as written is the correct one. But of course, that only begs the question—so often asked by Chief Justice Earl Warren—is the law right? Is it good? The answer—at least for the majority of Americans who desire greater balance—would seem to be no.

As is so often the case, technology itself offers a solution—this time to the constant connectivity problem. Apps offering “freedom” from connection have proliferated in recent years, helping thousands of Americans unilaterally detach.  As reported in the Times, some corporations have taken this step company-wide, with Volkswagen shutting down its Blackberry servers off-hours.

As I sit here at 1 A.M. finishing this entry, I am not naïve enough to think that American companies will soon follow suit—unless, of course, the companies themselves are convinced that such disconnection is a net positive to productivity.

Indeed, as Philip Roth told GQ, “I can only really write when I'm alone in a place that’s mine, that I’m accustomed to, and there's no interruption. I don't have a phone. I don’t have anything that can distract me. And I spend the hours ruminating. If you spend six or seven hours ruminating on your invention, the next part of it will come to you.

You don’t have to be world-famous author to realize how connectivity leads to burnout and disconnecting to rejuvenation. Recent surveys have shown that over 80 percent of American workers check work email on weekends and over half of workers respond to emails off-hours either in close to real-time. This pattern contributes to a high rate of stress among U.S. workers that is estimated to cost the economy about $300 billion annually.

In the end, like any prisoner’s dilemma, the only lasting solution to the problem of constant connectivity likely lies in collective action. In our nation, that action is unlikely to come from the government. As a result, advocates must convince business leaders to change their policies—for the good of their profits and the people they employ.

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