The 'always on' workplace: risks, opportunities and how to make it work

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I absolutely agree with your findings. I think we should stop access to work after working hours so that we can at least leave our work in the work place. It makes more sense to allow people to stay ...


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It's now common to telework or to reply to work-related emails away from the physical office. But what does this 'always on' culture mean for employee wellbeing?

Sophisticated but increasingly accessible technology is enabling many of us to work away from the office and even on the go. There are jobs, particularly those in customer-facing roles within the hospitality industry, where this 'luxury' can simply not be afforded. But for an increasing number of workers, including self-employed and a variety of professionals, it is becoming relatively common to telework for part of the working week, or at least, to reply to work-related emails out of the traditional 9 to 5 office hours and away from the physical office.

Prior to pervasive presence of the internet in our personal life, switching-off after work was physically possible to a great extent. Thus, offices shut down over night and those using computers kept their work within those offices, this made it easier for many to 'switch off' psychologically from work. Today there is potentially an 'always on workplace', and this introduces exciting possibilities of better balance between work and leisure with many reporting increase levels of satisfaction. However, a potential increase in work intensification, and people’s struggles to detach from work, reminds us that with the possibilities come the problems. From an HR viewpoint, it is paramount that we are 'switched on' and understand the impact of the always on workplace on employee wellbeing so that organisations can reap the benefits from a satisfied workforce while ensuring these are sustainable long term.

Work intensification

Traditional command and control management practices and a pervasive presenteeism culture did not sit well with the possibility of working away from the office in the early days. Against these concerns, more and more evidence began to confirm that most of those who work away from the office were becoming their own most demanding bosses.

For instance, in a study conducted by Kelliher and Anderson (2010), the authors explored and compared the experiences of workers from large multinational IT, pharmaceutical and consulting companies who were offered remote working for a number of years and had taken the offer, versus those who had the offer but continue working on-site. The authors found remote workers would work harder and/or longer than their on-site counterparts.

Interestingly, this is not an isolated finding in the literature. There is in fact a strong body of evidence showing intensification of work in terms of both quantity (more hours) or quality (more effort) in people working away from the office.

So if this is true, why are people working longer or putting more effort while being away from the watchful eye of managers and peers?

First, physical monitoring is not needed in many cases as practices such as management by objectives has usefully replaced the need for this. This is not to say that direct monitoring can-and in many ways is-being practised through smart technological developments. Interestingly though, it is not direct monitoring nor even the need to meet objectives which caused respondents in Kelliher and Anderson’s study to increase their work effort and hours whilst working from home. Some of the key reasons respondents cited in that study, and others conducted in this field, are the following:

  • There is an increased energy available from removing stressful and long commutes which is in turn applied to work
  • The increased time available from not engaging in frequent office distractions
  • The need to address concerns from on-site colleagues, as there is often a lower co-worker satisfaction in stronger teleworked organisations
  • To reciprocate the organisation’s gesture

Explaining work-intensification through psychology

The apparent self-imposed work intensification might raise some eyebrows to the incredulous manager, but there are well established psychological theories which can explain that behaviour. Looking at the four reasons identified earlier, the respondents indicate an increase in their energy levels. This is a rather obvious statement we might think. From classic stress theory for example, we can argue that we have a limited amount of energy to get us through the day and cope with demands placed on us. If we are able to not lose mental and physical energy in a certain task (e.g. commuting) we are able to put that energy in other tasks (eg get work done).

Perhaps a more controversial point is, why would we use this energy to work? One powerful reason here for many is probably the threat of job insecurity and fierce competition in the current labour market. From a psychological viewpoint, and looking at the four reasons respondents often report for increased intensification, the reciprocation component towards the colleagues and towards the workplace seems to be key. Social exchange theory can explain these findings. Thus, workers feel the organisation is enabling them to exert control over their working hours and in exchange they are prepared to give back additional effort or longer hours without the organisation explicitly asking for it. Importantly, in Kelliher and Anderson’s study the authors found that in the give and take game, the winner was the organisation every time.

Work intensification has been traditionally recognised as a powerful stressor. However, in Kelliher and Anderson’s study employees were more satisfied than those who were working from the office.

Advantages of the always on workplace

BENEFITS
PersonalEmployer
Increased sense of control over one’s workSavings in office space, lighting, equipment
Opportunity for better integration of work and life commitmentsIncreased productivity
Avoid the hassles of commutingIncreased commitment
More time available that could potentially be spend in leisureLower staff turnover rates
(Mazmanian, Orlikowski, & Yates, 2013; Keiller and Anderson 2010)

The common thread from the variety of advantages cited in the literature and summarised in the box above is the increased sense of control and autonomy over work and life in general. Perceived sense of control over work and autonomy have consistently been reported strongly related to job satisfaction, engagement and commitment. In this sense, the fact technology allows people to satisfy the need for autonomy is likely to explain why people tend to be more satisfied though working more intensely. It is also not surprising to see the links between ability to work in different times and spaces with the sought after happiness. Golden and Okulicz-Kozaryn found that setting one’s work schedule was strongly associated with greater happiness and this was true regardless of the income level and occupation. Working remotely and more broadly the choice of flexible working (which includes for instance reduced working hours) featured in the Third European Survey on working conditions with 21,505 participants as the first variable predicting job satisfaction, and among the top three related to physical health including heart disease, anxiety and the perception of health risk as a result of work.

While the benefits of being able to work away from the office seem to be quite powerful, the question is, how does this self-imposed work intensification impact employees’ wellbeing? This of course is not just a benevolent question for an organisation to ask, or a check point in a CSR strategy. It is also about long-term productivity and sustainable performance. Therefore, there are potential threats which should be considered. Some of the most significant ones are summarised below:

RISKS
PersonalEmployer
Individual choice can be a nice 'wrap' for work intensificationNegative long term impact of work intensification on productivity
Lack of account for the greater forces shaping our choice: cultural norms, gender inequalitiesNew forms of presenteeism- can there be a new 'virtual check-in'?
Short-term evaluation of gains without concern for long-term (eg high costs of stress)Lack of control over health and safety issues
Interference with strategies for psychological detachment to enable recovery and prevent stress
Risk of adopting compulsive internet use and compulsive work behaviours which reinforce each other
Bloom (2013; 2015); Quinones& Griffiths (2015) Quinones & Kakabadse (2014, 2015)

Living in an always on workplace and in general an 'always on culture' poses particular risks for our need to recover which is paramount to prevent stress. While there is some evidence suggesting that some activities found online, such as gaming, can help us recover from work related efforts, there is also evidence suggesting that for many switching off is difficult and to the extent to which this influences meaningful relationships in our lives and our own physical health, this cannot be overlooked.

What can HR do to help?

As we saw earlier, those working remotely were more committed and satisfied and there is a strong element of reciprocity employees feel driven to. Thus, offering workers the possibility to work remotely can be used as part of a commitment enhancement strategy. This offering shows the organisation understands the complexity in their lives and therefore they feel a stronger connection to them. However, this needs to be balanced with the understanding that remote working can be associated with stronger work intensification and that measures need to be put in place to avoid the long term costs associated with this:

  • First and foremost understand your remote workers. Ask what support they need and what can be done to improve your support to them-if you don’t ask, you don’t know
  • Use the information above to inform health and safety guidelines beyond the traditional (and necessary) use of office equipment guidelines. These may include recommendations on logging working hours and objectives achieved during the day. This can enable more efficient use of working time and self-checked they don’t over-reciprocate at the expense of their health (and eventually your organisation’s)
  • Provide information leaflets your employees can access about potential struggles with switching off from work or from technology (they are definitely not alone!) and guidance on how to seek help if needed

What can you do for yourself?

As a remote worker, mindfulness teacher in progress, and researcher psychologist in this field I have my own tips to stay afloat which may help you too:

  • Keep a log of your hours and objectives-work smarter not longer
  • Get some mindfulness in your life. Yes, it has become a bit of a fashionable thing to do but before you discard it give it a go. You don’t need an awful lot of time or preparation (of course there is plenty of reading to do if you wish). Start by taking some conscious deep breaths for a few minutes every day perhaps before or after work. Research suggests that those who integrate mindfulness into their lives – e.g. focusing on direct experience, being mindful or consciously aware of the present moment – experience more positive emotions, health and higher productivity.
  • Try to do fun things outside work-this helps with psychological recovery, dancing works for me!

Above all, be your own assertive but kind and compassionate boss.

Cristina Quinones of the Open University Business School is a chartered psychologist with a background in both occupational psychology and HRM. Prior to her full time academic posts, Cristina worked in different HR roles in the UK (at the NHS and the University of Southampton) and as an occupational psychologist at HC Energy in Spain



Comments

I absolutely agree with your findings. I think we should stop access to work after working hours so that we can at least leave our work in the work place. It makes more sense to allow people to stay on in their work place if they have something the need to do and this should be paid for. There are to many people today doing extra work at home without any pay what so ever. This is bad for their health over all and stress is a killer so we should not be encouraging this sort of commitment.


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