Optimizing for the Always-on Culture
Excerpted by Nancy Cushing-Jones from
People First for Organizational Fitness published by the Myers-Briggs Company
For organizations, an always-on culture can be attractive. Why wait for information or decisions when we can contact the right people any time? Many CEOs see smartphones as a way to increase productivity, and the always-on culture appeals to multinationals where team members operate in different time zones. When communication is restricted to ‘regular’ working hours, it slows things down. Communication can spread across days.
Digital technology has revolutionized communication. Public, medical and customer services are available online 24/7, and we can connect with our families anytime, anywhere in the world. However, this connectivity also means that we can be contacted by our workplace anytime and anywhere, leaving many of us experiencing a blurring of the boundaries between work and home. It’s not all one-way traffic from employers, though. Individual employees invest in the always-on culture too. We know from our own research that people use technology to avoid unpleasant surprises or keep ahead of the game when they are not officially ‘at work’. Technology can even give the same buzz as drug use and many of our communication apps are designed to be addictive. When our smartphones are always on, we struggle to switch off. This is the ‘always-on’ culture.
The always-on culture does have its downside. In our survey of workers in mainly managerial and professional jobs, we found that although most people agreed with the statement “people shouldn’t have to check their emails outside of normal working hours,” many also said that their organizations or their clients expected them to check their emails in the evenings or during weekends. We also found that sending or receiving work-related emails on vacation, in the evening, late at night or first thing in the morning contributed significantly to how stressed they were.
Academic research has shown that the enforced overlap between work and home life is linked to negative outcomes, including increased stress, decreased performance, lower satisfaction with family life, poorer health, reduced life satisfaction and decreased sleep quality. Employees who are tired, stressed and dissatisfied perform below their best, are more likely to make mistakes and will be less skilled in interacting with their colleagues or with customers.
A 2018 Financial Times article refers to a chart on the Bank of England’s unofficial blog that compared plunging productivity with soaring shipments of smartphones. Typical productivity growth in advanced economies has on average been negative since 2007. Lower productivity might be one consequence of the always-on culture, yet the underlying business models drive disproportionate amounts of investment toward technology rather than human capital. Just because employees are always-on doesn’t mean they are always performing. Sometimes it means they’re stressed, and if this causes people to then leave an organization, the increase in turnover affects the bottom line. It’s one example of how reducing stress and building resilience can help organizations perform better, as we’ve seen in our own work.
As the always-on culture has grown, the ‘right to disconnect’ is starting to emerge in some countries. In France, a law became effective in January 2017 that established a worker’s right to disconnect. The El Khomri law, named after the French Minister of Labor, requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when staff should not send or answer emails. The legislation followed a report which found that a correct balance between work and private life is essential for digital transformation to have a positive effect on workers’ quality of life. Knowing how to disconnect is a skill, and employers need to support it. Italy has also adopted a ‘right to disconnect’ law.
Organizations might find it more difficult to fix boundaries, but some do manage it. In Germany, Volkswagen, BMW and Puma are among the companies that have adopted policies to restrict email activity out of hours. At Daimler, emails sent to vacationing employees are deleted (with a suitably polite warning message for the sender). Our own research shows that adopting simple email rules can reduce stress and increase the effectiveness of communication. Here are a few tips for reducing email stress:
· Send fewer emails. The more you send, the more you receive, and that’s stressful – for you and everyone else.
· Respond quickly. People vary in how quickly they expect a reply but try to respond within 48 hours.
· Be clear, concise and correct. Most people like clear, concise emails with a subject line. Many are irritated by errors.
· Take care with chains and copying. Think who should be in the ‘to’ line and in the ‘cc’ line.
· Avoid making people search through long email chains.
· Stick to the working day. As far as you can, avoid sending and checking work-related emails at other times.
· Try to have at least some time email-free.
· Be polite. Your recipients will feel most positively about you and see you as more competent.
· Think about your audience. You probably have a particular style of communication. Vary your approach to match the needs of your audience.
Some organizations penalize staff for switching off their phones, or not opening voice messages, outside contracted hours, but such approaches are likely to reduce the health of the organization.
One of the best examples of a leader-led initiative is the New Work Manifesto. Created by Bruce Daisley and Sue Todd, the manifesto (see newworkmanifesto.org) seeks to improve the world of work. Daisley is the EMEA Vice President at Twitter, and Todd is CEO of Magnetic Media. The manifesto declares: “Modern work is frying our brains. We’re working longer and the way we’re working is taking more of a toll on us. We believe we can make work more enjoyable, more rewarding and less taxing. By committing to this simple manifesto, we believe we can improve work and our lives.” The New Work Manifesto:
· Presume permission. Assume the permission to be flexible – people do their best work in different ways.
· 40 hours is enough. Working longer does not achieve more.
· Reclaim your lunch. Urge everyone to use lunch breaks to refresh themselves.
· Give us some room. Open plan offices are bad for concentration. Allow people to step away from their desks, or to arrive later to them.
· Digital Sabbath. No one should be forced to answer work emails at the weekend.
· Got to be me. Allow us to be our true selves.
· Laugh. Laughter reduces our stress levels. Teams who laugh together collaborate better.
There are rewards for organizations that can successfully navigate the always-on culture. In this, the role of leaders and managers is crucial. First, they need to set reasonable guidelines and expectations. Second, they need to lead by personal example. Understanding personality and behavior is important. People with different personality preferences will tend to use social media in different ways, have different views on email, and be affected in different ways by various aspects of the always-on culture. Some people like the buzz of working into the night, but others don’t, because that is stressful. If a leader knows how their own work style and personality preferences differ from others, they can avoid imposing their work patterns unnecessarily. And if employees know how they work most effectively, they are better equipped to establish boundaries and take control.