It’s 5pm on Friday, which means it’s time to pack up your belongings and head home for the night. You’ve done some excellent work this week. Now, you’re excited for the weekend.
But before you even make it on the train, your phone notifies you that you’ve received an email. It’s your boss. He’s telling you that a meeting on Monday has been changed and you must finish up your presentation over the weekend.
Your boss has all but confirmed that your weekend plans aren’t happening. And that feels awful. Ugh.
If you’ve ever had to field emails late into Sunday night, or compile a spreadsheet on public transit, you know that being constantly connected isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In the wrong hands, the same technology that makes remote work possible also makes work inescapable. Because we live in a world of hyper-connectivity, thanks to smartphones and laptops, there’s an implicit expectation that we should always be online, always available, even outside of normal work hours.
This practice needs to end once and for all. It’s time to cut the cord on always-on workplace culture.
It’s true that your work and life are going to bleed together every now and again. For example, you may need to spend some time the night before a big presentation going over your notes. Or you’ll occasionally need to make a call from your commute to tie up some loose ends after a busy week. To some degree this is inevitable and generally not too intrusive.
After all, a perfect work-life balance probably isn’t possible.
But when an employer or coworker stops respecting boundaries altogether and begins taking advantage of people, by either implying or explicitly requiring them to always be available, it’s a big problem. It’s hard on employees, a strain on their physical and mental health, and it’s difficult for their families. On top of that, it’s not really beneficial to the business because overworked employees aren’t going to be nearly as productive as their less stressed colleagues. Shocker!
Unfortunately, always-on work culture is seemingly on the rise. According to a recent study, Americans spend 10 percent more time working now than they did in 1980. This increase is a result of many factors of course—including a troubling phenomenon Derek Thompson calls the religion of workism. But it’d be ridiculous to assume that those work-related push notifications aren’t a contributing factor.
Another recent study took a closer look to see just how bad the problem has gotten. Of those surveyed, 56 percent said they’d answered work calls outside of work hours and 43 percent said they felt they needed to “prioritize work over their personal lives”.
So what’s the answer?
Leadership needs to step in
As much as we’d all like to be able to Just Say No to the technological intrusion of work responsibilities into our personal lives, I just don’t think it’s feasible in most circumstances. Some of us can, for sure. But others may not be in a position to set up clear expectations around when and how we’re available, especially those of us who aren’t in a management position.
And that’s why the onus is on leadership to ensure that this type of culture never becomes the norm at their organization. Generally, this requires a clear set of guidelines around both remote work flexibility and standard working hours. And these guidelines might differ from department to department since some employees will have to work longer hours than others because of the nature of their role.
This can also take the form of a CEO announcement on the company intranet or a company value statement that all new hires are exposed to. No matter how it’s communicated, it needs to be enforced. And that means leadership will need to practice what they preach.
Don’t perpetuate it
Always-on work culture isn’t always the product of a demanding boss. It can arise completely organically within a small team and spread from there. Before you know it, it’s an unofficial expectation across an entire organization. Here’s what you can do to nip it in the bud before it reaches the point of no return.
Remember: if a coworker insists on bugging you outside of work hours, you’re not going to lose any points if you wait til tomorrow to respond. If you just sat down to dinner and you hear that ominous buzzing, that heinous beep beep beep, don’t reach for your phone! Unless you’re a doctor on call, I guarantee it can wait.
Vice versa: for those of you who simply love to work 14 hours a day (bless your hearts), try to respect the sanctity of work hours and spare your colleagues the stress! Maybe you’re actually most productive at 10:30pm on a Sunday. That’s great, but please, keep that to yourself. Why? Because every late-night email you send to coworkers plays a part in normalizing always-on work culture. It creates undue pressure on people and they’re going to resent you for it.
And finally, if a colleague refuses to respect your boundaries, feel free to gently remind them that you don’t work outside of a specific timeframe. If they want to contact you about something they can do so within those hours. It’s easier than it sounds and the colleague will almost always understand where you’re coming from.
A common fear is that always-on work culture will always be with us to some extent. As technology advances it might become even more ingrained in society. But I think there are small changes taking place at forward-thinking organizations. There are leaders out there encouraging people to unplug their devices and enjoy time with their families, and colleagues who take their free time seriously. Together we can finally turn off always-on culture!