Need to know:
- The potential for 24/7 availability can be a boon to both individuals and employers, but can also be detrimental when it comes to work-life balance and productivity.
- Enforced disconnection can help employees get a full break, but employers should not overlook the positive aspects of being able to connect outside of normal hours.
- Organisational culture is key to ensuring that flexibility and connectivity are used positively and do not result in burnout.
- An always-on, tailored benefits package that promotes employee wellbeing can help staff gain a healthy balance.
Innovations in technology and communications over the years have changed working lives beyond recognition. Many employees no longer need to be in a specific place to do their jobs, and can connect with colleagues and clients in any location, at any time.
This potential for 24/7 availability has brought about plenty of positives, not only when it comes to business results, but also working lives. However, having an ‘always-on’ culture also creates stresses and challenges for both employees and employers.
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Bringing work home
According to research by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), published in January 2018, 59% of the 1,037 managers surveyed consistently check their emails outside of normal working hours, adding an estimated 44 working days to schedules per year.
Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, says: “Long office hours, combined with the always-on expectation to answer emails, are eating into home life, leaving managers with little chance of respite and increasing stress levels.”
The problem is not restricted to management. The 2018 global culture report by reward organisation the OC Tanner Institute, published in September 2018, found that 53% of employees are forced to respond to work enquiries during personal time, while 38% are unable to stop thinking about work when they are not there.
In certain territories, employers have been bypassed in the search for a solution; in France, on 1 January 2017, legislation came into effect that obliges organisations with more than 50 workers to negotiate with employees to define their rights to disconnect their digital devices and reduce the intrusion of work into their private lives.
Elsewhere, large employers, such as automobile manufacturers Volkswagen and Daimler in Germany, have taken measures to limit messaging out of hours to prevent the burnout of employees. These include cutting connections in the evening and deleting emails automatically when workers are on holiday.
Jack Curzon, head of scheme design at Thomsons Online Benefits, says that most employers do not need to stage such radical interventions, however. “Being connected doesn’t have to be an additional source of pressure, with employees feeling that they can’t switch off after working hours,” he explains.
The flexibility offered by digital communications can, in fact, be a boon to many workers. “A lot of employees will feel a lot happier dashing out the door at 4pm to make an appointment or pick up their child from school if they can log on and sweep up any actions when they get home,” Curzon says. “In this case, being connected is a means of achieving a work-life balance.”
However, while flexible working can have significant benefits for both employees and employers, the balance can too easily shift towards the latter, due to the creeping expectation that staff must constantly remain connected.
Employers should be mindful of the potential long-term impact this can have on morale, sickness absence and retention when designing their approach to flexible working. Employees can also lose out if they are not empowered to speak up, sometimes to the detriment of their basic employment rights.
Fraser Vandal, solicitor with law firm TLT, says: “The Working Time Regulations require workers to have an 11-hour break between working days in the majority of cases, but staff almost never raise claims to enforce their rights in this particular respect. This can be for many reasons, including a lack of clear instruction not to perform out-of-hours work, not wanting to rock the boat or be seen to not have the right work ethic, or not wanting to go down the legal route.”
Because of this, the issue is often best managed through cultural changes in the organisation.
Cloud-based payroll software provider Paycircle, which has around 15 employees, has established a culture of flexible working where staff take control of their hours, place of work and holiday entitlement.
Co-founder Catherine Pinkney admits there are times when the pay-off for that flexibility is an expectation that employees will go the extra mile. However, she says organisational structure plays an integral role in shaping how staff react to this always-on culture.
“As a partnership, everyone in the Paycircle team has a vested interest in the [organisation] growing, and this means they will happily work longer hours if that’s what’s needed,” Pinkney explains.
“For example, the last three weeks of November were a mad sprint, with the whole team having to work late into the night and weekends. But nobody complained because, as we’re all partners, there is a company-wide buy-in to what we’re out to achieve. There’s a really strong culture of shared ownership and shared responsibility.”
Change from the top
Although it is often assumed that with higher seniority comes a natural increase in the expectation that an individual will be ‘always on’, it is important for leaders to set an example, according to Jackie Furey, director of workplace consultancy Where We Work.
“It is a common misconception that overworking will increase your productivity,” she explains. “It will, in fact, reduce it. Being always on will increase fatigue, be detrimental to employees’ health and, above all, cause high levels of stress.
“It is therefore essential that business leaders rethink their approach and do their utmost to develop a working culture that perceives overworking negatively, and that the always-on attitude is prohibited from the top down.”
Organisations can also tailor their benefits offering to encourage employees to disconnect as and when it is appropriate, and to spend time increasing their wellbeing during the process.
However, it is important to avoid a cookie-cutter approach, Curzon explains: “While some employers may choose to implement benefits such as yoga, in-work massages or mindfulness classes, they should be wary of stereotyping relaxing activities, as they may not be effective for everyone.”
One way around this is to offer flexible wellbeing pots, providing employees with an allowance to spend on any benefit they feel promotes their personal wellbeing.
A benefits system that is, in itself, able to match the always-on nature of the modern workforce is particularly important when it comes to helping employees manage their time and regain balance, especially in organisations where flexibility is practised.
Curzon concludes: “Employees working flexibly will only feel cared for and valued if they can access their benefits from wherever they are working. Benefits software that allows employees to make selections and changes at any time, on any device, is instrumental in ensuring those working flexibly engage with their benefits and their employer.”