In today’s New York Times Business Section, there’s a piece on the current state of work life balance, in an age of iPhones and Twitter (more or less). I’m quoted in it a little bit, so figured I would write some about the conversation I had with the writer and some thoughts that didn’t make it into the piece.
I talked with Mickey (the author) while I was taking time off between Mozilla and Greylock, right after I had written this blog post on disconnecting. I got connected to her via Bob Sutton, who’s in the article as well, and who’s always thoughtful and very quotable. Before I took off for vacation, my partner David Sze suggested to me that I totally disconnect from everything, saying that I would find the silence precious. He was right, for sure — but I just couldn’t really figure out how to do it. Too much of my life now is tangled up in e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, others. I think of myself as essentially an introvert, but I get a lot out of having the social connectivity that I do online. It’s all just become a part of my life that is very, very hard to turn off — it’s a little bit like turning off “talking to the neighbors,” at least for me.
I can’t really tell you if this is good, bad or indifferent — it is what it is. It does feel different than even a couple of years ago. As I mentioned in the article, it’s become a sort of “peripheral vision” — I can generally keep track of how people I care about and work with are feeling by reading what they tweet about and share on Facebook. How much they’re sharing is pertinent, too — you can sort of see some of the ebbs and flows of peoples’ lives.
One of the things that didn’t make it into the article is that I found engaging on Twitter indispensable for managing effectively at Mozilla. Hewlett & Packard used to talk about “managing by walking around” — the idea that the best way to understand what’s happening in an organization is just to walk around and observe it yourself. To meet people where they work, to talk with them about whatever is on their mind, to ask lots of questions. I really, really believe in doing that — more than being useful, I just really enjoyed doing it.
With so many Mozillians distributed around the world, living in Twitter became a modern sort of walking around for me. I followed and interacted with dozens of folks this way over the last couple of years. Clearly, not everyone was there — and we have a couple of other online forums that are probably even more important (IRC & Bugzilla) — but many were. And it was a great way to understand what was top of mind for folks, to understand who was feeling discouraged, who was feeling ready for new things. And just to commune with each other, really. I learned a lot by thinking about it that way.
Mozilla is unusual in its openness, so it’s hard for me to completely generalize from that experience — because of the open product roadmap and the open community involvement, doing all this stuff on the public internet was pretty natural. Obviously many (most?) companies won’t be able to do it quite like this. Conversely, I don’t think the closed, enterprise-only systems like Jive, Yammer & others are as diverse and rich in information (although they’re very clearly useful and will be successful). But as organizations become more agile, more distributed, more mixed in with other organizations in their processes and workforces, I think we’ll start to see tools that enable this peripheral vision or managing by walking around across boundaries that used to be more distinct.
Anyway, as to the main point of the article, I obviously haven’t really done much disconnecting at all. It was nice to try for a few days, but also felt like a lot of life was missing. For good or bad, for better or worse — this is life and work in modern times. We’re all learning together how to make sense of ubiquitous connectivity, of persistent projections of ourselves online, and the tensions between our physical world and our increasingly meaningful virtual one.