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Many of us have been there. Away on holiday and searching wildly for a wi-fi zone to connect to office emails in case something urgent has occurred. Or working longer hours at home in fear that flexible working may be taken away from us. How can we tackle the ‘always on’ culture?
Dr Christine Grant has studied our technology-driven always on culture and has been working on work life balance issues for over 10 years – mostly on remote working. She came to it after leaving her job in London because she wanted to work from home after her daughter was born. Thwarted at work, she started a PhD. “While I was doing my PhD everything changed,” she says. More people started working remotely and she noticed that there was a problem with remote workers overworking and blurring the lines between work and family. She set up the always on culture research group at Coventry University.
She says it is clear that the always on culture doesn’t just refer to working people. Witness the number of teenagers glued to their phones. “Everyone needs to know how to manage it best,” says Dr Grant.
There are two ways of tackling it – through individual awareness and employer support. Individuals need to be more self aware about how often they check emails or their phone and ask themselves do they really need to do so as often, she says. She is clear that what works for some people might not work for others. “Lots of people have very different ways of coping and managing their boundaries. Some people like flitting from work to home life; others like to have a definite cut-off. People face different pressures at different times and need different types of flexibility,” she says.
She works with remote workers and with agile working companies and thinks employers also have a role to play in addressing the always on culture. Her employer, for instance, issues information on email etiquette. That might include making it clear that if a manager sends an email in the evening that there is no pressure to reply instantaneously.
She understands that for many managers the end of the day might be the only time they get to go through emails properly, but suggests sending a delayed email so it arrives in someone’s inbox in the morning rather than in the late hours of the night in order to avoid creating expectations that people need to reply straight away.
“It is a help to have some sort of guidance,” she says, adding that more and more employers are recognising this. She mentions the new French right to disconnect legislation for companies with over 50 employees which gives people permission not to check emails at night, although she realises this may disadvantage some groups of people, such as parents who may choose to leave work early and log on when their children are in bed. “There is no one solution. Individuals have to work with their managers and be mindful and flexible,” she says.
She says managers also need to be aware of the causes of overworking among remote workers – lack of visibility being a key one.
She counsels setting time aside to tackle emails rather than responding to each and every one as it comes in as that creates a feeling that you can never relax as emails nearly always contain work. She adds that in the past those who worked from home were able to switch off and focus more on productive work, but with technological advances they are now getting interrupted almost as much as those in the office which creates its own pressures. Some types of people are more conscientious and find it more difficult to switch off, she adds. They may be more prone to burn out.
Dr Grant doesn’t believe burn out and stress caused by the always on culture are most effectively dealt with through well being policies and stress management workshops. She thinks that by the time people are sent to these it is too late. It is better, she says, to deal with workload on a daily basis. Dr Grant is an advocate of more training on how to manage remote and flexible workers and says that means more regular checking in with employees. “In the past performance management was traditionally done on a quarterly basis, but in my view managers need to check in with remote workers once a week and find out about their workload, check objectives and workers’ ability to deal with work pressures so they can see if they are overworking or may need help,” she says.
Then there are the holidays. Firms like Daimler have a policy where they delete any emails that come in during this period, letting the sender know that the person is on leave. She is not sure this is the best course of action as she feels it takes control away from individuals, but she says replying to emails on holiday can be confusing as people do not know if you are in the office or not.
Another issue is lack of recuperation time and she has a PhD student studying cognitive weariness associated with this. An additional problem for parents is that they are often unable to switch off in their home lives, particularly women who feel under pressure to “do it all”. “We need to be kinder to ourselves,” she says.
Dr Grant has developed an e-work assessment tool which enables employers to measure the impact of remote working on their employees. It provides a baseline as to where employees need help to improve e-working effectiveness and where well-being and work-life balance interventions are required.
What does she think today’s super-networked teenagers will be like as workers? “Technology is much more a part of their lives,” she says. “It is much more integrated into their lives. They will face a different set of issues.”