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Digital Availability

Onboard Spring 2022

Once upon a time in a far away land, I was 20 years old and had just found my first career (yes I had a different life before I became The Erica Lay, International Crew Agent). I was a project manager at the most famous department store in the world, and the largest in the UK: Harrods. Back then, only the top managers had work mobile phones, they were expensive and not really deemed all that necessary. Now for those who may not be aware, Harrods is enormous. With around 100,000m2 of selling space spread over 7 floors, plus a whole lot of behind the scenes offices, store rooms, technical departments, annexes, staff areas, two extra floors up on the roof and so on, it wasn’t uncommon for new staff members to get completely lost trying to find their way from the canteen back to their department, never to be seen again. “Where’s the new girl?” “She went for lunch.” “That was yesterday?” Getting hold of each other in our store wide team wasn’t always the easiest either: “Erica? Last seen clutching plans and heading to the 3rd floor about half hour ago”, so the day I was given my first pager, I was OVER THE MOON. I felt important. I felt validated. I felt like I was needed. When it beeped? You bet your backside I was proud as punch to ask to use a department’s in-house phone “Excuse me, yes, I’ve just been paged.” Loved it. Pagers soon became mobile phones, and I always told every client, every contractor, “if you need me just call me, anytime”. But back then people generally didn’t… we just got on with stuff ourselves, made our own decisions, and didn’t feel the need to check absolutely everything with seniors or whoever. We had more accountability, and more responsibility. I was fortunate in that my bosses always trusted me to make the right decisions and if I got something wrong, I’d tell them before someone else did. Forewarned is forearmed and all that.

These days it seems a lot of people are less secure in their decision making, or else their senior is micromanaging and insisting they approve every little decision so they can look and appear very busy and important. Insecurity? Totally. Take away the phones and this problem could probably be reduced.

Anyway, back to my little story. So then came the advent of smart phones. As someone who’s always taken a great pride in doing my job to the best of my abilities, for a very long time I associated that with being constantly available. Like, all the damn time. Every hour. Out of hours. Always living to check my emails and reply as soon as I could. This only got worse when I became a business owner in 2013. So, I basically made a rod for my own back, but then everyone else seemed to be doing it too and it honestly felt like the more you were sought after, out of hours, the more in demand you were, the more successful you were. Fast forward to now and suddenly there’s been a revelation! That not having time out from whatever you do, will probably lead to complete mental exhaustion. Even if you do absolutely love it. I had one experience of that in 2017, where I’d worked so hard and for so long, I was at risk of burning out. I was frazzled. That’s when I learned it was actually ok to go on a holiday and switch the phone off. Was it hard? Very. But did I love it? Absolutely. Nothing like a digital detox to recharge the batteries.  Under strict supervision of a very patient husband, I was able to check my phone on wifi in the evenings when we reached our hotel (we were road tripping across Western Canada with no sim cards and roaming was, then, out of the question unless I’d sold a kidney). It was liberating, and now every time I have a holiday I make sure the emails are switched off and only checked at certain times to allow me to return to work recharged, with lots of new ideas, and absolutely raring to go. Even if I do still check and answer my emails out of hours in the meantime (babysteps and all that…).

We all know someone who’s always connected to their phone and we’ve talked about this anti-social behaviour before, the one friend at a bar/restaurant who is constantly distracted and scrolling – tip: make everyone put their phone in the middle of the table, whoever checks theirs first has to pay.

We know we should, but sometimes it’s hard to disconnect, even if we want to, because other people simply won’t allow it. Some partners/friends/family members actually get angry if their message is not replied to in a certain time frame. And others just have absolutely no respect for the fact people might not be available. Case in point, at 9pm last night I received a WhatsApp from a random number asking if I were free for a coffee next week to talk about work. Who the heck are you? Why are you asking me this at this hour? I find this behaviour obliviously intrusive. Am I supposed to drop everything, and start up a conversation now? Not so long ago, offices only had land lines; if you weren’t there, you didn’t answer… and I’m starting to see the appeal once again.

The danger with the constant connection is that there’s no off switch. And for those who are always connected, the expectation is that everyone else must be too. So they don’t hesitate to send a work related WhatsApp at 4am. On a Sunday. No filter. None at all. Having expressed repeatedly on my Facebook work posts for what feels like a hundred years “please don’t PM me” it’s still astonishing how many people ignore that and PM me. It’s not possible to file and organise Facebook messages for one, then there’s the issue of people liking a story you’ve posted, and an important message getting lost amongst the hundred or so emoji reactions, and then, there’s the people who aren’t connected with you on a “friends” level, sending a message and wondering why it’s never replied to. Probably because it’s in some random others folder and I’ve never seen it. Also, I’m not staring at Facebook all day long waiting for someone to message me. I have shizzle to do y’all.

Let’s talk about those special people who freak out when they’re not answered straight away. They wait, then stew, then get paranoid, then stew some more, worrying they’ve offended you, then perhaps they get resentful, jealous, angry… just pick any fiery emotion and overreact on that spectacular emotional roller coaster that this self-imposed expectation of 24/7 availability has plopped you onto. And there’s no safety bar. Hold on tight! Some people just cannot grasp the fact that you might be doing something else, and just go right ahead and project their own fears and insecurities smack bang into your face. Nothing like opening up a stream of messages like that, if you look carefully you can actually spot where the rollercoaster plummets over the edge into the abyss. It's fascinating from a psychology point of view.

That being said, those who see a message, ignore it, and then proceed to post/comment on social media whilst leaving the sender on “read” probably do deserve a bit of a digital slap.  

So when will we have some sort of established digital availability etiquette? Because I’m sure we need it. Most people apparently put their phones onto “do not disturb” or silent mode in the eves but why should we have to? Recently my friend’s dad discovered tik tok. Could be ok right? Wrong. As a massive insomniac he watches hundreds of videos and then sends her links throughout the night. She wakes up to 4 or 5 links to utter crap that she has no interest in watching. Perhaps he feels it’s a way of communicating or sharing something with her, but he doesn’t get the fact that to her, it’s like getting spammed. When she asked him not to send these messages in the night his response was “calm down, just put your phone on silent” instead of simply NOT sending them. As she pointed out, she wants her phone to be available for any emergency calls. He still didn’t get it. Think she’s gonna go ahead and block her own dad now.

I guess this is another reason why I like email for business purposes. They’re all neat and tidy and easy to log and organise for one, but also, when I log onto my mails there’s no “YOU MUST RESPOND WITHIN 2 MINUTES OF OPENING OR THIS MESSAGE WILL SELF DESTRUCT” sense of abject frantic urgency. It’s on my terms, I can formulate the right response in my time, I can find out what’s needed, make the calls I need to make, and so on, then send a concise and convenient method of communication which the reader can digest at their own leisure. Similarly I don’t expect them to drop everything to respond immediately either. I understand people are busy having lives and doing their jobs, so I do enjoy it when I get that back. Mutual respect. That attitude has been lost with instant messaging, and I for one would love to get it back. [Puts phone on Do Not Disturb and pours a large glass of wine….]

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