Managing a 24/7 digital workforce


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Amid ‘digitisation’, how can companies manage the always on culture and ensure that employees switch off?

Digitisation is a megatrend that will affect all of us. Employees are operating anywhere, anytime, on any device and challenging the status quo of traditional workplaces. In particular, we look at how digitisation affects employee engagement and how businesses need to adapt.

The benefits are clear: more flexibility and more adaptability equals more wellbeing. Technological advances mean we can overcome traditional barriers imposed by geography, time and IT access. We can all become more efficient and work in a way that suits our lifestyles. I’m a big advocate.

However, with the benefits comes a clear warning. There is a danger that ‘always on’ may mean we are never off. Stress, burnout and a general deterioration of wellbeing are the undesired but very real consequences of digitisation.

In Singapore, where 87% of the population own a smartphone, medical professionals are pushing for internet addiction to be recognised as a psychological condition.  

Our own research also reinforces the issue, with more than two-thirds (39%) of employees indicating they don’t achieve a good balance between work and home life. The fall out hits loyalty hard – of those employees who do not feel their employer helps them achieve a good work/life balance, 10% are more likely to leave their organisation.

Unsurprisingly, governments and businesses are responding:

  • In Germany, the employment ministry has recently banned its managers from calling or emailing staff out of hours except in emergencies.
  • In France, a new labour agreement means that employees must ignore their bosses' work emails once they are out of the office and relaxing at home.
  • Volkswagen has agreed to stop its Blackberry servers sending emails to some employees when they are off-shift.
  • Daimler, the car and truck maker, has recently implemented a new program that allows employees to set their email software to automatically delete incoming emails while they are on holiday.
  • And a new app, ‘Moment’, has arrived that enables users to see how much time they're spending on the device and set up warnings if self-imposed usage limits are breached.

Although these initiatives highlight the issue and reinforce good intentions, it’s uncertain whether they will actually make a difference to ingrained behaviours. Policies alone only go so far and if people really feel compelled to work all hours of the day, they’ll find a way.

From a business perspective, legislation and restrictive policies may also be counter-productive. Instead of supporting wellbeing, they may actually be damaging autonomy and flexibility – the good stuff that can help us achieve a healthier lifestyle.

It makes you wonder whether underneath the surface-level policies and legislation, there needs to be a deeper understanding of digitisation and what it means for the way we work. 

It’s important to create a common understanding of what’s expected. For digitisation to work, and for businesses to create more engagement, there needs to be an appreciation of how people embrace the digital era in different ways.

Leaders should focus their people on the end goal. Rather than controlling how employees use technology, the emphasis should be on communicating what it can offer. A vision needs to be sold to every staff member so that they understand the importance of wellbeing in achieving business performance. Without clarity and a common understanding, the option of being ‘always on’ can encourage unreasonable behaviours that quickly spiral into employee burnout.

The topic might be new, but the solution is old: it needs strong leadership and management styles to create a step-change in organisational understanding and behaviour.

Phil Pringle is a senior consultant at Hay Group 

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