Striving for a better balance in the future of work

Employers insisting on a 9-5 working culture in the digital age reduce productivity and increase staff churn for little reward, a new report explains.

Mobile, Collaboration, Apple, remote work, hybrid work

The temptation to make the new world of work a digital reflection of old ways of working still exists, so it’s going to take time to get the balance right. And actually reaching the potential for asynchronous remote and hybrid working practices will take some measure of imagination.

Digital presenteeism is not your friend

That’s the sense I get from the latest future-of-work report to cross my desk. It's from Qatalog and GitLab and explains how employers insisting on a 9-5 hour workday in this digital age reduce productivity and increase staff churn with little payback. Digital presenteeism, insisting people are at their desk during set hours, eats into the work/life balance employees seek and doesn’t really get work done.

Think of it this way. Once upon a time, workers trooped into offices to sit quietly at desks for eight hours a day while attempting to seem busy. Management could watch what people did, summon staff into ad hoc meetings to create a little friction and scare others into working harder, and might even sometimes turn up at the office themselves.

This began to change as Apple, the iPhone and iPad showed the potential for mobile technology to transform how we work, but it took a quantum leap forward when the pandemic struck. A decade of digital transformation took place in scant weeks.

Some employers continue to insist on a rigid 9-5 working culture, even when working remotely. Combined with strict hierarchies and the use of multiple remote working tools, this creates a “pervasive culture of digital presenteeism."

At work 24/7? No thanks

The problem, according to the research, is that 54% of staff feel pressured to always appear online and visible. Yes, they might seem to work harder to gain recognition, but some of this effort, such as attending extra meetings or responding to emails late at night, means they are adding an average 67 minutes to their working day (most of which is unproductive). That effort, those additional hours, and the challenge of handling seemingly endless app notifications, means workers are stressed out, concentration is blunted, and productivity can fall.

Don’t neglect a recent Corel survey that suggested companies rely on the wrong tools a significant amount of the time. Businesses must think deeply to ensure the tools they supply are sufficiently good that workers will use them.

The report authors argue that employers should push their thinking forward a few more gears and learn to embrace flexibility, not just in terms of where people work, but also in terms of when. They point out that technology means workers can do their jobs at almost any time of day, which means coordinated hours are becoming an anachronism.

“In 10 years, we’ll look back at this period and wonder why asynchronous work seemed so difficult. Those who will succeed in the next decade will have an iterative mindset, an empowered team, and a bias for action,” writes Darren Murph, GitLabs Head of Remote.

Wake up and embrace change

It is worth noting that the principle of coordinated working hours in offices grew out of working patterns in factories at a time when the technology for business was mainly an in-person exercise. Yet, as everyone who has been through the pandemic knows, knowledge workers no longer work that way ‚ we’re asynchronous, remote, and international.

In many senses, this change in expectations is no change at all. Knowledge work has always been marked by a sense of asynchronicity. People meet, talk, agree, and then go off and work in small groups or alone. What has changed is that 65% of workers now have, and expect, more flexibility to decide when they work.

[Also read: How to set up and use Focus modes on iOS 16]

It’s time to get the apps right

Perhaps one of the most boringly predictable challenges remote workers face involves the tools they’re asked to use. On average, workers have 6.2 apps sending them notifications at work, and 73% of them respond to those outside of working hours, further eroding the division between (asynchronous) work time and personal time. It means over half (52%) of workers find it hard to switch off, and this is made worse by habits of digital presenteeism. A worker may find that they do their work at times that suit them best, but still feel pressurized to pretend to be present the rest of the time, too.

To be fair, managers are also feeling the strain, with more than 70% feeling burnt-out as they struggle to handle so much change. You could argue that inflexible management practices constitute an unarticulated cry for help, though that may be a stretch.

To arrive at these conclusions, the report authors spoke with 2,000 knowledge workers (those who use a computer or laptop over 50% of the time for work) in the US and UK. “The concept of 'time' at work is dead. We just don’t know it yet,” the report explains.

The inference of all this really should be clear: These days it’s less important to choose your time, and far more important to clearly define and communicate your goals if you want to deploy highly productive, highly motivated teams.

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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