You are currently viewing The potential pitfall of always-on working – a practical response

The potential pitfall of always-on working – a practical response

There’s a continuing debate around the connection between remote working and working longer hours – the danger of being “always on” once you have the tools to do so.

This article from 2012 was the second in a series on the potential pitfalls of working smarter.

[Archive article] Working 24/7

How to claim back some work-life balance

Remember the days when work was 9-5, shops closed on Sundays, and blackberries were a seasonal fruit?

Times have changed.  With new technologies and working practices, working time can now be anywhere and anytime.

Here in the second of our articles on potential pitfalls of flexible work, we look at the danger of work being always on.  Flexible work should help overcome the long hours culture.  But for the unwary it can just bring the long hours home.

So here are some suggestions on how to restore the balance.

See also the companion article: Home alone: assessing and overcoming the dangers of isolation.

“24/7 working should be about the economy as a whole – it’s not a requirement for your daily life.”

Good advice, but something that 21st century flexible workers may be inclined to forget when the office is on the network and work can be wherever they are.

It’s one of the main concerns expressed when we run Flexibility events – that taking work home, or taking the technologies for work home – can mean that you never switch off.  There’s always the temptation to check the emails last thing at night to see if you got that urgent reply, or to start on the report over breakfast to make a flying start to the working day.

Mobile phones, Blackberries, tablets and laptops go everywhere with you – to parties and on holiday too.  The world will fall apart if you’re not on the end of the line, it seems.

And when you put down the work and should be relaxing, you find there are two extra members of the family party accompanying you everywhere – Stress and Guilt.  Guilt that you’re not working, plus guilt that you’re not giving family life your full attention.

How has this come about?

We know that one of the benefits of flexible working is increased productivity.  Increased productivity from flexible working is about working more effectively, not about working longer.

However, flexible working has been a developing trend at a time when there is another dominant trend in the workplace – the Long Hours Culture.

British workers apparently work the longest hours in Europe – four million of us work more than 48 hours per week, with 1 in 6 working more than 60 hours per week.  The average is 43.5 hours: 4 hours more than German workers, and 5 hours more than the French.  And are we any more productive?  Not according to official figures.

Now we have the tools to take the long hours culture home with us.  We have the opportunity of finding a genuine work-life balance by eliminating wasteful travel time and creating an efficient working environment away from the office. But all too often endless work becomes an intrusive and disruptive element at home.

Information overload

Apart from the “long hours culture”, another key driver of 24/7 working is information overload.  We seem to have far more information at our fingertips, largely due to the ease of making it and sending it to everyone we possibly can.

Of course a lot of it is useful, and where would the “Knowledge Economy” be without it?  But a lot of the information we receive and share is of no or minimal value.  And getting through it is so time-consuming!

We tackle the email mountain at midnight for the same reason as people climb Everest – because it’s there.  The difference is that unlike the email mountain, Everest doesn’t get higher if you don’t climb it.

How to restore the balance

Here we present some Flexibility tips on how to restore the balance.

Deal with the Guilt!

Guilt is the spectre at the feast, the ghost holding out the laptop to you, saying “You didn’t finish that report!” “The whole team is waiting for your input” “You’re the only person who can deal with these customer queries”.

Here are some ways to deal with it:

  • Make rules, and let people know about them.  Like: you can be called at this time, but definitely not at those times.  You won’t ever switch on your computer/phone on a Saturday/after 7pm/before 8am, etc.  And stick to the rules, without sounding churlish or unhelpful.
    Of course, if you want time out during normal hours, you may need to allow for some work being done at other times.  But not all the time.
  • Enable/empower other people to do your work
    This is key to having a good holiday, and it’s also useful in dealing with work crises.  It’s amazing how many people work on holiday simply because they are deemed to be the only person who can do often quite routine tasks.  Why feel guilty about not doing work when someone else could cover for you?
  • Drink – or something
    When you feel the demon work-guilt approach, don’t sneak out of the party – have another glass. Well, it doesn’t have to be a drink.  It’s about letting go, and letting any thought of work act as a spur to have some fun instead. The options are many.

Improve your time management

This is often less about managing your time “after hours” than in managing your regular working hours more effectively. Like we tell our kids: “get as much work done at school as you can, and you’ll have more time to play in the evening”.

Why do we let work spill over the boundaries and upset the balance?  Partly it’s high workload, for sure.  But that’s not 100% of the reason.  A key part of it is because time “at work” during regular hours is not used as productively as it could be.

Key timewasters are:

  • constant interruptions
  • pointless meetings
  • unnecessary travel (especially to pointless meetings)
  • chit-chat (including moaning about difficult journeys to pointless meetings)
  • that colleague who can never make a decision or has to consult you on every comma and apostrophe
  • constantly checking emails as a distraction from irksome work.

No doubt you can add to the list. The point is that the solution to work spilling over its designated hours is mostly about tackling wider productivity issues.

Celebrate your love of your work!

It may be time for a true confession.  Many people actually work long and additional hours because they want to!  But it can be hard to admit it.  You really want to bury yourself away in the den and not play with the kids?  Yes! You’d rather burn the midnight oil than climb into bed with the one you love?

Well possibly on occasions you might make this choice, or bring your laptop to bed for a threesome. You do this because you love your work, or you’re committed to delivering the highest quality product.  Celebrate it!  Your loving partner will understand, and hopefully will still be there in the morning.

Everyone will be able to handle it better if they know what the deal is, and the stress levels will go down.  Unless you do it every day, in which case expect the divorce papers soon.

The perfect work-life balance is what works for you, not some objective standard handed down from on high.  And if at times in your life it makes you happy – or pleasingly wealthy – to put in some extra work, then go for it.

Take time out flexibly too

Flexible work helps work-life balance as long as there truly is a balance.  It should give you the opportunity to re-time or re-locate work in order to do what you want to do in life.

Working late hours becomes more reasonable if you’ve taken time out in the day to do what you have – or want – to do: attending that school sports day, carrying out a caring responsibility, going hang-gliding, being a board member of a charity and so forth.

And it’s also more acceptable when you know that you’ll also be getting time-off-in-lieu.  Demand it!

“Binge working” and bundling your hours

We’ve noticed a strong demand in staff consultations for options that allow workers to bundle their hours:  compressed working hours options and self-rostering with longer shifts are popular, especially for people with longer journeys or who have to spend nights away from home.

There’s also the phenomenon of “binge working” – working flat out for a while, to be balanced by longer periods of chilling out.  And why not, if it works for you?

The key principle is to take ownership of the hours on and the hours off, and not become a slave to the machine.

Finally, the off button

Switching off the computer and the communications gadgets can be psychologically challenging – traumatic even.

But mechanically, it remains simple. Click.

Now for some fun.