I’ve had a pretty busy September. I was on leave for a week in late August and then went straight to a conference in Portugal. After a brief and frenetic period at home/work, I had two back-to-back conferences in London.
For most of late August and September I’ve had an out-of-office notice on my email saying I was away and that I would look at emails when and as I could, but I wouldn’t be able to deal with any attachments. So what did saying that accomplish?
Well, not much as it turned out. The rate of emails slowed marginally. One person actually cut and paste what would normally be an attachment into the body of the email so it could be read. Another couple of people apologized for needing an answer while I was away. But many still required me to respond straight away to requests for meeting dates, answers to questions, comments on documents – and several made decisions for me if I didn’t answer immediately. Everyday work just seems to have continued as usual – the customary expectations of turnaround time and responsiveness were the same as if I was actually present. I know this is a full-time academic first-world problem, but it is a bit of a problem nevertheless… Let me explain.
The thing I really need to say here, just in case there’s someone out there who doesn’t know this, is that academic conferences ARE work. They might be away from home, and there might be the odd dinner in restaurants or a moment of sightseeing, but giving and attending papers, networking, talking to publishers, meeting with potential collaborators – that’s academic work. And what’s more, the work doesn’t just benefit us. The conference is academic work that’s good for our institutions too. Universities get reputational benefit from their academics being out and about, and there are future benefits for them in the form of bids, publications and citations. The more citations and league tables matter to university reputations and enrolments, the more conferences matter too.
Being away at a conference meant that my workload substantially increased – because there was the work at the conference and then there was the relatively undiminished everyday work that needed doing at home. I know from talking to colleagues that I’m not the only one who experiences this double-trouble phenomenon. Lots of people find that being away at a conference is a very mixed blessing.
I don’t think this additional load was necessarily anyone’s individual fault. Everyone who sent me emailed demands was beavering away doing their own jobs. Some just couldn’t adjust deadlines and processes to account for one absent member of the group/task they were managing. They had to go with the set process. Others however seem to have internalised a set of very speedy institutional time-frames – I’m not convinced everything had to be this fast – and everyone inevitably depended on digitally mediated communications to conduct their speedy transactions … aka email.
Do you remember the time before email? When someone was away their office door would be shut and they just wouldn’t turn up at a meeting, and this wouldn’t matter. Only if the situation was extremely important would their away-activities be interrupted by a telephone call. These days however, the sheer ubiquity of mobile technologies means that the expectation more often than not seems to be that no-one is ever truly away doing something else or on leave. We all carry phones, tablets and notebooks everywhere so we’re always contactable.
It sometimes seems difficult to even contemplate that we might not all actually want to live on these gadgets, that we need a break. An example – I just noticed from the bounce-back on one of those routine group emails – now the way we routinely communicate with each other – that one of my colleagues had an out of office notice saying that they weren’t available over the weekend! The weekend …
I plead guilty to pandering to this be-available-all-day-all-year situation. When I was away over summer in a remote part of the country where there was pretty patchy mobile access, I and my mates ended up at the local pub each morning to check our emails. That’ll be four coffees please, and an hour or so dealing with queries, demon diaries and the please-respond-even-though-I know-you’re-on-holidays-because-I’m-desperate. Some ‘leave’.
However, there were lots of things I didn’t do during my leave and conference time. I’ve now forgotten what a lot of them were and if I don’t get re-contacted about them – well they can’t have been that important. And I did just tag a lot of emails while I was at conferences so that I could follow them up later. And that ‘when’ means, I’m afraid, when I have time to squash them into the everyday work that is already in my diary for the coming weeks.
But I figure I need to do something about this situation. My un-new years resolution is to get more ruthless about the continuous stream of communication. It’s clear that out-of-office messages are utterly useless as a means of controlling the onslaught of stuff that ends up in the mailbox. More hands-on tactics are required. I’m not sure how I will adjust to a new less responsive routine, as I have been well-trained to respond like Pavlov’s dog to the churn and to feel overwhelmed if it turns into an unanswered glut. I’m already one of the professionals who has highly permeable work/private life boundaries – Christina Nippert-Eng’s classic study documented this problem a long time ago. So it won’t be easy to change. But I’m going to try.
You heard it here first. Don’t always expect an immediate response to your email. Maybe you won’t get a response at all. Maybe you will. So, if you really want to know what I’m thinking, maybe you could ask me for a conversation and a coffee instead. But then, *shakes head*, how will we set the date and time???