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24 Oct

Any time, any place, anywhere (Part 1)

By Robert Bain, Work.

In the 36 years since Dolly Parton first sang the words “Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’,” office life has changed almost beyond recognition. In 1980, Parton’s morning routine was to “tumble out of bed, stumble to the kitchen and pour myself a cup of ambition”. Today, she might check her work emails on her smartphone, curse a colleague’s ineptitude and only then stumble into the kitchen.

Dark side of flexible working

While 9 to 5, the standard working shift, epitomises office drudgery, 24/7 represents a globalised, thrusting dynamism and, as such, is used to market all kinds of services — from plumbers and gyms to translation services and payday loans. For employees, 24/7 may reflect their need — perceived or spelled out — to get to the office early to keep up with international markets, Skype out of hours or respond ASAP when their inbox fills up with urgent messages from the other side of the world. This is the dark side of flexible working: the ability to work anywhere, anytime has, for many staff, morphed into working everywhere, all the time.

This transformation of our working lives has been driven by technology, particularly email, laptops and smartphones. With laptops, we could take our emails home. With smartphones — which we check 85 times a day, according to a 2015 Lancaster University study — it is easy, quick and convenient to view emails out of hours. We start out thinking we’ll just check that there’s nothing urgent, then we respond to a couple (really, it won’t take long and that’ll be two less to deal with tomorrow) and, by the time we’ve finished, we’re immersed in all the concerns we thought we had left in the office. One unexpected consequence is that — as James Gleick predicted in his 1999 book Faster — in a world where ASAP is the minimum standard of expected response, we easily confuse speed with quality.

Earlier in 2016, a Chartered Management Institute (CMI) survey of more than 1,500 UK managers found that 77% work for at least an additional hour each day with one in 10 putting in more than three extra hours each day — a level of extra working that poses legal risks.

CMI’s Quality of Working Life study found the employees who work long hours are “more than three times as likely to report that they feel stressed than those working no additional hours”. Some 61% of managers blame technology for these extra hours as they find it harder to switch off, with one in five reporting that they check emails all the time. Those struggling to switch off are also, by their own account, not as productive.

To put this into context, working for an additional hour each day adds up to 29 days over the course of a year — more than the average UK holiday entitlement. In the US, a survey of 1,500 managers by software firm Samanage found more than a third spend at least one hour a day outside of work hours on emails. This equates to an extra 30 days a year, which is three times their typical annual leave.

Addiction, burn out

In the short term, all these extra hours look like a bonus for employers, but Larissa Barber and Alecia Santuzzi of Northern Illinois University, who published a study on the topic in 2015, warn that people need to switch off. Staff who are “always on” are likely to be sleeping badly, off work a lot and on the way to burning out. Numerous studies by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health have suggested the damage to health can be even more serious, with long hours increasing the incidence of depression, diabetes and heart disease.

“It’s just not sustainable,” says Barber. “If employees are responding at all hours of the day and very quickly, you’re not allowing that really healthy recovery process to occur, so they’re just not going to be able to meet demands in the future.”

This phenomenon can’t entirely be blamed on employers — and that makes it harder to manage. In research from Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, 59% of British adults described themselves as “addicted” to their digital devices, with a third already having tried a “digital detox”. Micro-monitoring our personal email and social media is one thing, but such compulsive behaviour has long since crept into our working lives.

Barber and Santuzzi believe the urge to be “always on” arises mainly from “social cues” — the pressure co-workers put on each other, intentionally or unintentionally: marking messages “urgent” when they’re really not, requesting a response “ASAP” or apologising for not replying sooner.

“Employees can get overt and subtle cues from their work environment that high responsiveness is valued and expected,” says Santuzzi. These cues vary between sectors. Kevin Roose, author of Young Money, says of Wall Street: “Young bankers are doing it to themselves because the competition is so fierce and they’ll do anything they can to stand out. Most of what you’re doing does not require original thinking, so the only way you can distinguish yourself is by sheer endurance.”

Gillian Symon of Royal Holloway, University of London, says the intimate, personal nature of smartphones adds to the difficulty. “A smartphone is very much your personal device, and that encourages people to personalise the whole issue,” she says. “Some people really beat themselves up for not managing their boundaries better.”

American software developer Kevin Holesh realised he was becoming addicted to his iPhone, to the point where “I felt naked if it wasn’t in my right pocket”. Bored and easily distracted, Holesh decided to confront his obsession in 2014, devising an app called Moment that tracks his usage and warns him when he is about to break pre-set limits.

Expectations

Social, peer and personal pressure can have a powerful influence in a global workplace where formal policies on out-of-hours communication are the exception, rather than the rule. Ksenia Zheltoukhova, research adviser at the CIPD, says: “If you don’t have a firm boundary, the volume of work is undefined. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for when you should be available. A range of psychological processes kick in and it goes into the realm of expectations: what is your manager expecting you to do and what is the worker expecting?”

One study, Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect, presented to the US Academy of Management, found that the anticipation of emails waiting to be dealt with, as much as the work itself, wore staff down. “Even during the times when there are no emails to act upon, the mere norm of availability and the anticipation of work creates a stress that precludes an employee from work detachment,” says co-author William J Becker, associate professor of management at the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech. “Such expectations — real or imagined — cause more problems, including burnout and work-life balance issues, than the actual time it takes to read and respond to after-hours emails.”

Impaired decision-making

Cognitive overload — caused by having too much information — has been shown to impair our ability to learn, think clearly, form long-term memories and make decisions. It’s not unusual to be working on a laptop with several browser tabs and documents open, occasional email pop-ups in the corner of the screen and a phone by our side. If you’re doing this out of hours, you may also be watching TV or holding a conversation.

While multi-tasking is regarded as a critical skill in the 21st century workplace, cognitive scientists argue that we don’t multi-task at all, we just switch between tasks at an ever more hectic rate. Every switch has its cost in terms of our ability to deal with information. A 2009 study by researchers at Stanford University showed that people who multi-tasked more were actually less good at it than others — because they were so easily distracted.

Analysis paralysis, where the sheer amount of information and choice prevents us from making a decision — because we always feel there’s a better option or another key nugget of information just around the corner — can also slow us down. The web’s abundance of information — much of it incomplete, inaccurate or contradictory — encourages us to waste time and energy searching for answers we don’t need. As a 1998 study by psychologists from Princeton and Stanford universities found, we overestimate the value of missing data and can make slower or poorer decisions when we hold out for extra information we don’t use.

This concludes Part 1 of “Any time, any place, anywhere”, first published in the Autumn 2016 issue of CIPD’s Work. magazine. Part 2 of this article can be viewed here.