What Generation Y and California can teach us about switching off

Taking time out to go tech-free isn't an airy-fairy hippy ideal, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 31 Jul 2015

Talk of meditation, mindfulness classes and workplace massages still causes a raised eyebrow or two in many quarters of the corporate and entrepreneurial worlds, where there is little tolerance for about anything that might be perceived as new age or ‘spiritual’.

Particularly in the start-up environment I inhabit, there is still a prevailing belief that we need to work constantly to succeed, that regular 16-hour days are vital to success and that our digital devices have to be fully charged and accessible 24/7.

But in an era of ubiquitous and all-pervasive technology and media, the concept of needing a little headspace – or even reconfiguring our sometimes hostile work environments – is quickly gaining traction. Many no longer see it as an airy-fairy indulgence, but a business necessity.

As somebody who grew up in South Asia, moved to Silicon Valley, and now live in London, I have witnessed contrasting attitudes to ‘detoxing’ from work and I think London can learn a little from other cultural approaches.

Steve Jobs and counter-culture

The traditionally cynical, all-hours work culture of the UK is now adopting practices from the ‘hippy dippy’ counter-culture of California, where, for the last half-century, increasing importance has been placed on finding ones inner self amid the noise of modern life.

Steve Jobs was almost a life-long practitioner of Zen meditation at the San Francisco Zen Center, having travelled to India as a 19-year-old student and discovered the benefits of meditation. Many cite his dedication to quiet time as key to his consistent drive, his ability to convert failure into success and come to the table with fresh, new approaches, and successful products. Indeed, the zen-like approach to the design of Apple products was and still is key to its phenomenal business success.

Taking place around now and for the last 10 years, the Wisdom 2.0 conference in the Bay area has seen around 2,000 stressed-out Valley start-up execs, including the founders of Twitter and eBay, decamp for days at a time to learn how quiet time and various forms of mindfulness can lead to increased productivity.

And London has recently had our own version of Wisdom 2.0 - the sell-out event Hacking Happiness, which showed attendees new ways of successfully ‘hacking’ our sleep, dietary and work patterns.

How does Gen Y do it?

In London’s Tech City, where I now spend a lot of time, technology is all around and many people work all hours.

It is the Generation Y-ers, the globalised 20-somethings, who are most receptive and embracing of digital detox methods. Generation Y, the ‘digital natives’ who were brought up in the 90s and 00’s, are innate tech users, and the ubiquity of laptops and smartphones in their lives has led them to naturally seek out ways to improve their work/life balance.

They are the ‘no rules’ generation creating new and more relaxed work environments for themselves - on their Macs in Old Street coffee shops, or working in comfortable, relaxed co-working spaces. They aren’t ashamed of admitting they take time to go to yoga or mindfulness classes. And those, myself included, of an older generation, would do well to follow suit.

In the ‘office utopic’ environment of the Second Home workspace in London, home to many Gen Y-ers, there is even a regular afternoon meditation class, set amid an indoor hanging garden that is a dedicated tech-free zone. Add to this a top-notch restaurant and bar area, and young workers are once more seeing the value of downtime and yes - even lunch.

Of course, we only have to go back a few decades to the Thatcher/Reagan era, and the idea of switching off was anathema to any successful businessperson. ‘Lunch is for wimps’ was Gordon Gecko’s now legendary Wall Street mantra (and a mantra which is silently chanted to this day in certain sectors of the finance industry). And of course Mrs Thatcher herself casually boasted of functioning perfectly well on just 4 hours sleep per night. But this was also an era of executive burnout for many high-fliers.

Cut to today and we have young business leaders like Kathryn Parsons, the founder of London tech start-up Decoded, who recently switched off her email entirely to see if it made her working life more productive, as she realised always-on technology was ‘creating chaos’ for her.

As we all begin to reach ‘peak email’, we need to switch off sometimes, put the phone far away, and learn from our Californian and Asian cousins how to be a bit more zen.

Faisal Butt is CEO and founder of property technology accelerator Pi Labs and venture capital firm Spire Ventures. He is in the process of creating a £1.5m fund to will invest in up to 15 property-related start-ups over the next 18 months. Find out more and invest on Seedrs here.

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