Some of the best ideas come from casual conversations. Take this chat I had with my friend Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic and co-creator of WordPress. We were talking about his company’s early embrace of distributed company culture and remote working. That has helped the company scale to more than 1,000 people, and helped them develop expertise around managing teams, creating a corporate culture, and establishing strong bonds. Matt has often talked about this on his blog, but during our conversation, he mentioned an idea I hadn’t heard before: “Away From Keyboard.”
At first, I thought this sounded like just another “auto-responder” one might set up in their email when they are “out on vacation.” After mulling over it for a few days, I wanted to double click on this topic. It is pretty apparent that we need this philosophy. We are all working from home, and we are balancing family, kids, and work on top of all the general pressures of quarantine living. The companies that have never embraced work from home are now forced to do so. In the process, many are creating the same amount of “busy work” for employees without regard for their emotional well being.
Wanting to know more, I did a short 15-minute mini-cast with Matt, digging into AFK. As he explained, it all started with the founding of Automattic. The company started using Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and everyone started to stay logged in all the time. People began changing their name to usernameAFK when they stepped away from their computer. “I would normally be Photomatt,” Matt said, “and I would switch to PhotomattAFK for ‘away from the keyboard.’” AFK soon came to represent vacation or any time off. “It was just kind of a fun way to put it and also try to encourage people actually to be AFK on their time off,” he said.
AFK has become even more vital, because we are unfailingly spending an excessive amount of time in front of the screens. Now that the novelty has worn off, we are suffering from Zoom fatigue. Even binging videos has lost some of its zip. Our keyboards and screens are reminders of the unspoken trauma of relentless work, hectic life, and an uncertain future. Most of us are suffering from significant mental fatigue.
As American neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley has discussed, the rest and restoration from training are as important for Olympians as the training itself. Even for us non-Olympians, our minds work the same way. But when we are under stress, we do precisely the opposite of what will help us. “If I’m stressed, I find myself going to social networks, going to Instagram, going to Twitter, and spending a ton of time on there, when doing the very opposite was probably the right thing that would ease my stress,” Matt said.
This malaise likely afflicts many of us who work in information technology. We have this idea that we can make things better by knowing and accumulating more information and more information. “I sometimes think the opposite’s true,” Matt said. “I try to remind myself of that. It certainly helps.”
AFK can be a useful tool to manage the rejuvenation of our brain. Even before the current crisis, I had incorporated a 36-hour digital Sabbath into my life, which started at 4.45 pm on Friday and lasted until I got back online on Sunday morning. It made me appreciate my screen-focused work even more, and it also gave me time to indulge in slower activities, like writing a journal, noodling on ideas, reading a paperback, and tasting the coffee as it got cold. Tomorrow will be my ninth Monday in self-isolation, and I have started using the AFK as a way to keep my mind fresh.
A status indicator in Slack, Teams, and even as a short email auto-responder saying: AFK, should be encouraged by the team leaders. It makes sense to take a day off — not just from work, but from the keyboard. Build in a lot of micro-breaks in your day. You need to create space for your brain to spring back from the stress and be more relaxed. As a manager, one needs to be encouraging such behavior to have your team working at top performance.
Disclosure: Matt’s company Automattic is backed by True Ventures where I am a partner.