The right to disconnect, remote work, and professional ghosting: the new realm of operations

Technology promised to make our lives easier, but it has arguably increased our stress levels.

Each time we look at our smartphones, the apps on our home screen have a number of notifications constantly ticking upward: 17, 33, 54. Unsurprisingly, a poll last year by Klaviyo revealed that Americans have around 47 unread text messages and 1,602 unopened emails as we begin to lose the battle against digital clutter.

Managing a growing number of WhatsApp chat groups for work, family, and your friends can quickly lead to 100 unread messages. Unfortunately, when rushing to acknowledge them, there are also many unwritten social rules and universal text codes to navigate around. For example, even the double thumbs-up emoji can quickly escalate tensions and be perceived as saying, "I received your message, and I am closing the conversation without wasting my words on you."

Cognitive overload is causing many to step away from their smartphones and return to a much simpler way of life by building boundaries around their digital communications. As a result, many people are scaling down their conversations, culling their messaging groups, or muting the ubiquitous over-sharers (you know who you are).

However, dehumanizing communication has led to the phenomenon of ghosting. In the world of dating and friendships, almost anyone from your life can completely disappear when you least expect it. They often vanish from phone calls, text messages, and social media overnight. But, "ghosting" has now entered the working world too.

Ghosting in the workplace

The last two years' events have seen many employees flirt with burnout, which made them prioritize their mental health. Employers with trust issues somewhat bafflingly responded by implementing surveillance tech that monitored every mouse move, keystroke, and even facial recognition, which prompted many to explore the right to disconnect.

The arrival of so-called great resignation quickly followed and started several trends around ghosting in the workplace. Employees quit their positions without giving notice, some stopped showing up for their scheduled job interviews, and an increasing number of candidates accepted job offers but didn't show up on their start date. They simply vanished quicker than an ex-partner from your social media feed.

Professional ghosting can also be found when your boss conveniently "lost" the message you sent or when a colleague disappears around the time of an important project task deadline. Many find it easier to disappear from all communication methods instead of facing awkward conversations or admitting to letting anyone down.

Is someone busy or ghosting you?

In the digital world of "always-on," the lines between our work and personal life have all but disappeared. As a result, many are becoming overwhelmed by their family responsibilities, stresses, grief, and anxieties of the daily grind. As a result, choosing to reply or ignore the latest influx of Slack, email, or other digital messages has become the epitome of first-world problems.

The inconvenient truth is we all play a part in creating this problem by demanding real-time responses to our messages without thinking about the time or circumstances of the recipient. The New York Times writer Erica Dhawan suggested that many of us are unwittingly suffering from the symptom of "main-character syndrome."

"I've found that it forces me to confront my own main-character syndrome — the idea that we all play a starring role in the movie that is our life, with everyone else merely the supporting cast."

- Erica Dhawan.

Although you might feel like the main character, the reality is tight deadlines, and back-to-back meetings will probably mean that your message isn't on the top of someone else's to-do list. There is a good reason why the only blank space in a colleague's calendar is lunchtime. But it will not stop this person from booking a meeting for noon.

If you do not answer your phone while eating, it shouldn't be perceived as ghosting. These examples highlight the most significant casualties of hybrid working are nuance and context while also serving a healthy reminder of why we should never confuse setting boundaries and ghosting.

Respecting boundaries

Remember, it's not all about you before sending out a barrage of messages centered around your goals and priorities. We know how multiple unread notifications that require an urgent reply create a cycle of guilt in our inboxes, but we seldom think about it when sending the same messages out to someone else. For a team to succeed, we need to care for others and respect boundaries rather than accuse them of ghosting or game playing.

Technology has enabled employees to work from any device, location, and at any time. They also have a long list of tools, apps, and services to ensure that teams remain connected around the clock. So maybe it's time to set boundaries to seek a higher quality way to stay connected without anyone being accused of ghosting their colleagues. But for this to work, we also need to curb our habits as the sender.

One of the biggest traps of the sender-receiver paradox is that everyone becomes a boundary violator at some point. The workplace is crying out for a more human-centered way of communication rather than hiding behind our technology and sending a digital message to someone a few desks away. But, will you be brave enough to step outside of your main character syndrome and put yourself in the place of the recipient of your messages before you hit send?

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