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01 Jul 2016

Staying in touch

By John Day and Alex Tilley

Today’s technology enables us to carry our work with us wherever we go and ensures our capacity to connect is almost endless.

 

But such capabilities have blurred the boundary between work and home. New research suggests that some employees don’t know how to leave work when they leave the office. ‘Smart’ devices are changing the paradigm of the traditional workday; ‘working nine to five’ may no longer be the way to make a living.

 

Possession of a Smartphone enables many people to fit the epicentre of their office into the palm of their hand, allowing them to monitor multiple inboxes, and providing instant access to a world of information. We can view presentations, type and edit documents, research statistics, and conduct face-to-face meetings with people on the other side of the globe at the touch of a screen. There can be no doubt that we are more connected than ever, but are we less capable than ever of disconnecting?

 

A recent survey conducted by CareerBuilder.com suggests that many people remain ‘checked in’ to the office long after they have left. Of the 1,078 participants, 63% agreed they struggled to switch off mentally after leaving the office, and 38% said they frequently worked outside of office hours. One in four people admitted to checking their work emails whilst with family and friends.

 

Concerns have been raised about the impact this may to have on an employee’s health, personal relationships, and on their overall work/life balance. Mark Cropley, a professor at the University of Surrey in the UK outlines some of the health consequences of being constantly connected, “Physiologically, people who can’t switch off are tense and irritable, they have high blood pressure, a high heart rate, and that puts stress on the cardiovascular system. We’ve also shown that people who can’t switch off have high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, they have sleeping problems, concentration problems, and other issues.” Cropley also noted that being constantly “checked in” to the office may even be counterproductive. “People find themselves working in the evenings, either finishing projects or checking emails to make life easier for the next day, but this means they can’t switch off. They’ll be in bed and their mind will still be on work. They’ll go round and round in circles thinking ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that.’ Then they go back to work the next day feeling more fatigued and more likely to make mistakes.”

 

What is interesting about the results derived from the CareerBuilder survey is that 62% of the participants reported seeing constant connection as a choice, rather than an obligation. Indeed in a society as fast-paced and device-reliant as ours, it would be pointless to try to resist these technologies. Instead we need embrace these advancements and ask ourselves, how can we use them to our advantage? Perhaps the answer lies in the eradication of the ‘nine-to-five’ mentality of our workforce. Dissolving this dated concept could make room for a new era shaped by new technology. "Workers want more flexibility in their schedules, and with improvements in technology that enable employees to check in at any time, from anywhere, it makes sense to allow employees to work outside the traditional nine-to-five schedule," says Rosemary Haefner, Chief HR Officer at CareerBuilder. "Moving away from a nine-to-five work week may not be possible for some companies, but if done right, allowing employees more freedom and flexibility with their schedules can improve morale, boost productivity and increase retention rates.”

 

But what about the aforementioned health concerns of constant connection? These may be a consequence of the current transitional phase, where employees are attempting to adhere to the nine-to-five and be constantly connected. Flexibility and trust from employers is key to empowering employees to manage their work/life balance. Lizzie Penny, Co-founder and Joint CEO at Huckleberry Partners and Futureproof, notes that the concept of nine-to-five is older than electricity, and was born from conformity rather than practicality or productivity. Penny predicts that empathy is the way of the future when it comes to business, “In order for an employee to feel connected to and motivated by their employer, mutual understanding is crucial. This requires the employer to truly empathise with the person behind the employee, and appreciate the richness and complexity of their lives outside of work. Failure to do so may encourage the employee to seek out a more “caring” work environment, or follow the growing trend towards self-employment.” She argues that “Future-thinking businesses must trust employees to manage their own workload and abandon presenteeism.”

 

What we are seeing is massive shift towards constant availability, if employees are willing to work outside of ‘traditional’ hours, what is there to gain from strict adherence to a nine-to-five routine.

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