Are you too busy to be cool?

We have always promoted the concept of helping our clients to work fewer hours yet gain higher profits; our strategic business department specialises in doing exactly that.

So when Emma Gannon wrote such a superb article in the Sunday Times about productivity, perceptions of ‘busy-ness’ and flexible working, we thought we’d share it with you…


Once upon a time, overloading yourself with busyness, by choice, was the ultimate status symbol. Working 24/7 and losing hair over your start-up’s accelerated growth carried a special type of prestige, a badge of honour.

It was cool to use words and phrases such as “crazy busy”, “snowed under”, “swamped”, “flat-out”, “slammed” and “rammed”, and whinge (with barely concealed pride) about the bags under your eyes when a friend asked how you were. Waking up Tim Cook-style at 3.45am or slaying Marissa Mayer-style 130-hour work weeks was the hot new look. As the old saying goes — and it was something an old boss used to say to me: “You can sleep when you’re dead.”

But where a public display of productivity was once something to feel puffed-up about, now it seems we’ve done a U-turn: we’ve gone from bragging about the four-hour sleep to the four-hour work week. Have we finally had enough of praising endless hustle?

Instead of talking about how many emails you’ve smashed before your morning matcha latte, the new status game is all about ostentatiously working less and being harder to contact. It’s still about being busy — but at the same time appearing not to be. Look at the likes of Simon Cowell and Chris Evans, who claim to have ditched their mobile phones entirely.

Directly linked to this, there’s been an increase in painstakingly detailed and boastful out-of-office notifications. These are hardly ever useful or informative; they are humblebrags, reminding the sender that the recipient doesn’t work a full week, by the way.

For example, I received an out-of-office (OOO) notification the other day that read: “Hi, thanks for getting in touch. Please note I STRICTLY only check my emails on Monday at 1-3pm and Fridays at 9-12pm.”

Another read: “My team and I work flexibly. Please be patient as we do not work usual hours, so our day might look different to yours.” Which read to me like a HR advert targeting Generation Z graduates who want a fun, flexible job.

Yet another read: “Thanks for your email. Currently working nomadically and therefore will only be checking email at 8am, 2pm and 5pm (and only for a few minutes at a time).”

So detailed! I was impressed by this black-belt level of time management but I also thought: I don’t believe them. I am pretty sure they constantly hit the refresh button like the rest of us. It’s an act. A social signal. A ruse.

This new status symbol comes from the fetishisation of being one’s own boss and painting a picture of having the perfect mixture of work, travel and sleep (after all, 70% of millennials want flexible working options). Sleep is a now being labelled “a luxury item” — and is a billion-dollar business.

Being glued to your phone is becoming less cool. It appears that a public display of minimal emailing or online activity is the new sought-after personal brand: being someone who barely works, while also secretly working around the clock.

Interestingly, after receiving each of these wafty out-of-office messages, I got a reply pretty much straight away.

It is trendy to pretend to be as zen as Andy Puddicomb, the modern monk from Headspace, while hustling 24/7 in the background. It’s like that kid at school who claims they never revise . . . before getting top grades.

After all, it is one big hierarchy game: the more sought-after you are, the less screen time you should (seemingly) need, or get away with. You can be ruder, essentially. Vicki Turk, author of Digital Etiquette, suggests trying to email like a CEO by replying with blunt, one-word answers to give the illusion of power. I once interviewed an ex-editor of this newspaper who admitted to replying to pitches with “yep” or “nope”. It must speed things up.

Other than status, I have a theory as to why we are all flocking towards such dramatic OOO responses. We want time out. We desperately need distance from our overwhelmingly “always-on” online worlds.

The National Library of Medicine in America has found a link between depression and screen time. Since having work emails on our phones and buzzing feelings in our pockets, work days have increased from 7½ hours to 9½ hours. Most of us still check email at weekends, late at night or in the pub loos.

Perhaps we all feel so stressed, so overwhelmed, that an unnecessarily detailed out-of-office message might be the only way we can create some element of fake distance between our minds and our screens.

Admittedly, I have become an OOO culprit myself. In a world where I can be contacted professionally via multiple inboxes all hours of the day (email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack), putting on a smug message is often the only time I can pretend to myself that I am free from the shackles of my phone and the bordering-on-religious loyalty I have to my work. So OOO. BRB.

Emma Gannon is an author and the host of the award-winning Ctrl Alt Delete podcast.

You can read this article on the Times website here.


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