When he was attending University in Amsterdam while also working in a supermarket to make extra money, Erwin Van Der Vlist had an epiphany: employers should not be able to contact employees at all hours—especially when they are not actually on the job—because it wasn’t healthy for either the worker or the company. “Employees get notified all the time,” he said. “And because it’s usually on their personal devices, which friends and family use to contact them, they can’t really shut them off,” he said. There are ramifications for companies too when such open access is allowed, Van Der Vlist continued. Namely, the communication is usually over “unofficial” channels such as an employee’s personal phone, which can trip up all kinds of internal rules and processes. 

After University, Van Der Vlist went on to co-found Speakap, where is he now CEO. The app gives companies a way to have structured dialogue with a worker in a controlled environment as opposed to an unofficial text messaging app. 

Getting Off the “Always On” Bandwagon 

Speakap, though, just addresses only a small part of a larger conversation. Namely, the need for employees to jump off the “always on” bandwagon and be able to tune out their employer — certainly while off the clock — but even during the day. An hour of being unplugged is good for productivity and facilities creative thinking, or so the theory goes.

For example, a study out of the University of British Columbia finds that a worker can reduce stress by limiting when he checks email to three times a day. There are, in fact, multiple studies that show that short breaks throughout the day will allow you to be more productive, said Julia Kanouse, CEO of the Illinois Technology Association, who pointed to a survey by Tork that found that that taking a lunch break actually leads to higher employee engagement. “Physiologically we are built to work this way,” she said. “According to research from The Energy Project, humans move from full focus to fatigue every 90 minutes. Tony Schwartz, the founder, calls this ‘pulse and pause’, recommending that we take short breaks every 90 minutes to walk, drink water and engage in other healthy activities.

Tech applications have also glommed onto this trend, with several browser extensions such as Marinara, FocusMe and Strict Workflow, developed to set a timer for getting work done, then taking a break, according to ITOPro

The movement is also spreading outside office walls. Every year for the past ten years on the second Friday of March, people around the world put away their electronic devices for the National Day of Unplugging

Related Article: How Do You Know if You're Providing a Top Employee Experience?

The Unplugged Concept Gains Momentum

Unplugging for part of the workday is hardly a mainstream movement, but many companies are implementing some variation of this concept because they recognize its benefits. 

Learning Opportunities

GivingAssistant.org, for example, gives employees the flexibility to work from home and/or to cancel non-essential meetings when they need to go into what it calls ‘cave mode’, said Katie Horgan, co-founder and VP of Operations. And when that employee is in cave mode, the company policy is to request needed answers the same day or within 24 hours so they can continue to work uninterrupted. “Of course, if something is literally on fire, we call and work through the priorities together,” she said.

As another example, ResumeLab has not only initiated “unplug” slots on its calendars, but it’s also told its people to take a lot of micro-breaks throughout the day while at work, according to Jagoda Wieczorek, HR specialist for the company. This is an issue the company has been tracking, she said, and it ultimately decided to have its Research and Content team do a data-driven project to ask about the tech habits of highly successful people. “The findings show that employees should unplug during the workday in order to be more productive and to think creatively on one task,” she said. 

CEOs as well recognize that using short tech breaks will help them stay on top of their own productivity. “When I focus on writing or anything that requires all my attention I turn off my cell phone and internet access to my computer,” said Mark Shandrow, CEO of Asana Recovery. “When I do outbound sales calls, I will focus on making calls for 50 minutes without my cell phone or email and then spend the last 10 minutes of the hour checking my email,” he added. 

There is definitely a business case to be made for a tech break, said Ethan M. Segal, founder & CEO of Segal & Co Digital Marketing. “I take two short tech breaks during my day to energize and I can say that they help sustain my energy level and enable better quality of work overall.”

Abusing the Privilege 

Not surprisingly perhaps, this kind of flexibility can also lead to abuse if there are no controls in place, these same companies will acknowledge. When it implemented its unplug initiative, ResumeLab saw its workers develop better willpower and reasoning skills throughout the day. “This, alone, served as a powerful motivation tool that boosted productivity around the office,” Wieczorek said. But there was a downside — some employees took advantage. “They would slack off while on hours, they would stretch mini-breaks, they would unplug and cash out during certain hours of the day,” she said, like late afternoon when the employee would cash out two hours before the day ended. “You’ll have to initiate some rules on this if you see it being taken for granted,” she advised. “It’s a luxury, not a privilege.”