Technology and the always-on culture in the office

Killing time

Technology has freed workers from being bound to a desk but now they’re often at the office’s beck and call 24/7. Welcome to ‘always-on’ culture…

Killing time

Do you remember the occasion you scheduled an out-of-office reply on your work computer? You were about to head off on holiday and the last thing you did before you left the office was activate the function to notify senders that you would not be reading or responding to emails until your return. In your absence, they could either contact a colleague or assistant named in your auto-reply, or simply sit tight until you were back.

These days, the typical out-of-office reply refers to ‘limited’ or ‘intermittent’ email access, which is code for saying you’re kind of on vacation but also not. Senders whose queries are so urgent they can’t wait until you get back from a day trip to the beach/bush are invited to text your smartphone so the entire party has to rush back to holiday HQ so you can get back online. Because in the smartphone era, being offline is for losers, and work-life balance is just another name for flunking out of your company’s high-performance culture.

A 2015 study by global leadership development provider Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL) describes the growing pressure to be ‘always on’ as the culture of being ‘time macho’ and explains that 24/7 connectivity via smartphones has plunged workers into a relentless competition to arrive early, stay late and be available at all hours. Round-the-clock connectivity has become the ‘new normal’, writes lead researcher Jennifer J Deal, and as a result people are ‘fatigued and angry about being always on and never done; the lines between their personal and professional lives blurred if not completely eliminated’.

The CCL study found that smartphone-carrying managers and professionals were interacting with work upwards of 13.5 hours a day, or 72-plus hours per week, including an average of five hours on weekends, leaving around just three hours per day for ‘discretionary’ activities such family time, exercise and taking the dog for a walk.

As this ‘always on’ culture spreads through organisations, employees at all levels start to face pressure to answer emails, field calls and respond to texts at all hours of the day or night, including weekends and holidays – either because employees tend to mimic their managers, or because always-on managers explicitly require it.

A 2016 survey of US employees found that 71% checked their work email for the first time between 5 am and 9 am, and the same percentage scanned their work email at least once between 6 pm and midnight.

In 2020, if you really want to show you have your back in it, you keep your notifications turned on and check in every time your smartphone pings to remind you that you’re part of the 21st century sweatshop. Being seen to be online is the new overtime (remember overtime?), so you fire off responses to after-hours emails as soon as they hit your inbox in order to keep your competitive advantage, and in some cases your job.

Is the smartphone to blame? If so, technology has backfired on us with excruciating irony. Mobile phones initially gave us reason to be optimistic about a more flexible workplace, says Deal. The theory was that in pursuit of greater work-life balance, we could, for one, attend our children’s sporting events in the middle of the workday and still be available to the office via our smartphone – not shackled to the office email on a 24-hour clock.

But Deal’s study, like several others, exonerates technology and instead lays the blame at good-old organisational dysfunction. An always-on culture flourishes to disguise failures to manage people and processes effectively, she says.

‘Technology and the “always on” expectations of professionals enable organisations to mask poor processes, indecision, dysfunctional cultures and sub-par infrastructure because they know that everyone will pick up the slack,’ she writes.

‘Can’t make a decision? Call another meeting to “process”. Have a fear-based culture? Copy a bazillion people on every email so your backside is covered. Can’t manage time properly? Keep staff waiting for a decision and they’ll just work all night to make the deadline… So while technology may be a logical scapegoat, it is actually just a new-age mask for an age-old problem: poor management and poor leadership.’

Bertrand Duperrin, who is head of employee and client experience at communication agency group Emakina France, echoes this view. Digitalising the workplace was meant to help us be more efficient during working hours, not extend them endlessly to hide our inefficiency and lack of resources, he says. But technology-enabled asynchronous and ubiquitous connectivity has given rise to a new time-space elasticity, writes Duperrin. In other words, we do not all have to be avail- able at the same time in the same space in order to share and exchange information and work towards common goals. But instead of delivering flexibility, this ‘time-space elasticity’ enables understaffed organisations to simply take ownership of a larger part of their existing employees’ time.

‘This is an organisational performance issue,’ he says. Left unchecked, however, the impact will manifest itself in individual under-performance and staff churn.

JSE Magazine Dana Brownlee Professionalism matters

The mere expectation that employees may monitor work email during non-working hours increases anxiety and negatively impacts employee health and personal relationships, a 2018 study co-authored by Virginia Tech management studies professor William Becker states. Referring to the ‘insidiuous downsides of electronic communication norms’, Becker and his fellow authors find that the boundaries between work and family are more complex than ever before. ‘Organisational electronic communication […] increases this burden as employees feel an obligation to shift roles throughout their non-work time.’

Co-author Liuba Belkon adds: ‘Even when people don’t actually engage with emails, just knowing they’re expected to reply obstructs their meaningful relationship with their spouse. This expectation robs you of engagement with other non-work-related activities.’

An always-on communication culture is a collective norm shaped by management-ordained codes with employees’ implicit consent, according to Duperrin, and any individual employee who refuses to comply does so at considerable risk. ‘No one wants to be seen as the guy who doesn’t read “urgent” mails received during dinner or while on vacation with their family, leaving colleagues and clients to their fate and showing how poorly engaged they are.’

Change must likewise be collective, not individual, he says. So should you make a pact with your colleagues about going offline after hours? Band together against first-thing-on-Monday project deadlines? It can’t be career suicide if you all act together, right? But what if self-interest trumps the collective interest? Who will blink first?

Dana Brownlee of Atlanta-based executive coaching firm Professionalism Matters suggests a script for setting boundaries with a workaholic manager: ‘Say something like, “I really want to do my best work here, and make sure you get exactly what you need. But to do that, I need to preserve some balance in my life.” Then say you’d really appreciate their thoughts on how to do that.’ Brownlee recommends that you put the emphasis on work by asking your boss to help you prioritise tasks, effectively making them a partner in your boundary-setting initiative.

The message is that you are 100% committed to company objectives but that you want to set parameters around the timeline of actual work.

In appraising performance, the emphasis should not be on extra hours worked but on projects completed – and managers should plan efficiently and set reasonable deadlines without simply assuming that having coerced their employees into compliance with an always-on culture means they will ‘never run out of hours’. If the team cannot meet an important deadline without doing extra yards, basic time management skills can be put to use to create a roster that rotates time off and assigns tasks in such a way that extra hours are used to maximum efficiency, with a sincere thank-you and a round of pizza sweetening the deal or, at least, doing no harm.

But if ‘always on’ is built into your company’s interpretation of high-performance culture and you get zero kicks out of beating the ‘time macho’ players at their own game, you may have to consider switching employers and moving to an environment that values work-life balance.

Stolen hours between Friday afternoon briefings and Monday morning deadlines may be enough weekend for some, but time is quite literally up when your smartphone starts to look like an electronic leash to your employer that the company can yank anytime it likes.

By Annelize Visser
Image: Andreas Eiselen/Higbury Media