Recent technology developments are the primary driver for today's ‘always on’ work culture. Thanks to smartphones, Wi-Fi, mobile collaboration tools and a work-obsessed culture, employees are expected to be available almost 24/7. While some may accept these communication habits as the way of the future, it isn’t necessarily the best route for all businesses.
In fact, many business leaders and researchers have expressed concern over how our ‘always on’ culture is negatively impacting work-life balance and contributing to faster employee burnout. In a 2016 report, “Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect,” researchers from Lehigh University, Virginia Tech and Colorado State University concluded:
“An ‘always on' culture with high expectations to monitor and respond to emails during non-work time may prevent employees from ever fully disengaging from work, leading to chronic stress and emotional exhaustion.”
To better understand the public perceptions around after-hours communications and accessibility, we reviewed outside research and polled our Twitter followers with a series of questions exploring the personal impact of the ‘always on’ work culture.
The Impact of Constant Communication—And What Lessons Managers Can Take Away
Quick #Poll: Do you feel today's 'always on' work culture is hurting our personal lives?
— West UC (@West_UC) April 24, 2017
Lesson 1: Clarify Expectations and Set Boundaries
The main concern of the “always on culture” is that it’s interfering with employees’ work-life balance. In our first Twitter poll, we asked whether today’s ‘always on’ work culture is hurting people's’ personal lives. Of the 576 votes cast, 78 percent said ‘yes’ while just 22 percent said ‘no’. Such a definitive yes is somewhat alarming, and raises the question of how managers can still encourage productivity without causing burnout.
One way managers can promote a healthier work-life balance is by encouraging a general sign-off time where employees unplug from email and team collaboration apps for the remainder of the night or weekend. For example, Volkswagen forces its employees to take “mini-email vacations” by deactivating employees’ mobile email accounts after work hours. This alleviates pressure to be responsive while at home with family and gives employees a mental break from work. In fact, research from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found people who were limited in how often they could check their email had lower stress levels than those allowed to check their email an unlimited number of times.
Of course, different roles and responsibilities may require different approaches to after-hours communications. Therefore, managers and business leaders must clarify expectations around out of office availability. For many businesses, there are also times of year where workloads are heavier than normal. During these periods, managers should explain how expectations around after-hours accessibility might be different than normal. Similarly, as employees get promoted, expectations around time commitments and availability may also change. Newly promoted employees should talk with their supervisors and teammates about their own communication habits and preferences, as well as how responsive they need to be outside the office.
Still, all employees should be offered some semblance of a work-life balance for both their physical and mental health. Companies must recognize that a healthy, happy employee will likely be more productive and loyal than one that is always available but completely drained.
Quick #Poll: How often do you check your work email outside of office hours?
— West UC (@West_UC) May 2, 2017
Lesson 2: Lead By Example
The lure and accessibility of our smartphones makes it all too easy to check our email. The “Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect” report discovered employees spend an average of 8 hours a week reading and responding to company-related emails after hours.
When we asked on Twitter how often people check their work email outside of office hours, 27 percent said they check email “very frequently,” while 29 percent said “rarely” and 44 percent said “never.” Overall, it’s encouraging to see that most employees can check out and enjoy their time away from the office.
Helping employees achieve work-life balance is essential to keeping quality team members. Besides encouraging employees to sign-off email, companies should do their best to limit how often employees work after hours or while out of the office. If there’s a project that needs extra work over the weekend, managers should try to make sure that other weekends are open for employees to rest and check out.
It’s also important to note that it’s frequently managers and executives who set the tone for how ‘on’ employees have to be outside the office. Managers that avoid excessive after-hours communications will encourage employees to do the same. Similarly, managers should make a conscious effort to praise employees for their results and for achieving performance goals, instead of the number of hours they work.
Quick #Poll: Does easy access to work email impede your ability to 'check out' while on PTO?
— West UC (@West_UC) May 8, 2017
Lesson 3: Respect Employees’ PTO
One of our previous studies found that about one out of every five employees spends time working while on vacation. And our recent Twitter poll found 44 percent of employees said easy access to email prevents them from checking out. It’s critical for companies to acknowledge paid time off is designated time for employees to relax and refresh. Employees shouldn’t have to feel tethered to their work devices.
Companies should focus on creating a supportive company culture that makes employees comfortable taking time away from work. Before leaving for vacation, encourage employees to discuss how accessible they’ll be with their team. Getting everyone on the same page ahead of time will reduce stress, prevent communication mishaps and clarify what responsibilities your colleagues may need to pick up while you’re out. For example, if you plan on checking your email once a day or if you won’t be on email at all, be sure colleagues know that and plan accordingly. If you’re worried that a crisis may pop up, consider giving out your number for emergencies.
At the end of the day, the sound of a message ping shouldn’t cause employees anxiety. Managers and companies alike need to understand that the ‘always on’ communication culture is hurting employees’ sense of work-life balance, inducing stress and contributing to burnout.
We believe that companies need to set and to communicate realistic expectations for after-hours staff availability and responsiveness. Business leaders and managers must master the balance of enabling quality, efficient work without cutting too much into employees’ personal time.