Always-on Work Culture: Advantages and Disadvantages
The acceleration of the remote workforce has created many ever-changing scenarios that employees and employees now must adapt to.
Traditionally, the workforce was built around a 9-to-5 working day. However, in recent years, overtime hours have become far more common, and individuals are now working more hours than ever before.
While remote working has been seen as a hugely positive movement for today's workforce, the reality is that it has created an 'always-on' work culture.
As a result, boundaries have blurred, making it difficult for individuals to identify when the working day officially ends.
Some people can manage their work-life balance well. But others risk employee burnout if they do not take adequate time to look after their health and well-being.
It is a new challenge for HR managers to implement new working remote working policies when an 'always on' work culture has the potential to bring positives to a company, as well as pitfalls.
- A company can work across different time zones
- Flexible hours can suit an employees productivity and creativity
- Stress relieving to not have to fit everything into set hours
- Can react to new opportunities as soon as they come through
- Increased workplace anxiety
- It’s not good for diversity or equality
- It becomes hard to prioritize your workload
Before we get into the advantages and disadvantages of an always-on work culture, it's important to be clear about what it is and how companies define it.
An 'always on' work culture is where your employer is no longer paying attention to the typical working hours set out in your contract.
You may be expected to work around the clock, even during weekends and evenings.
The always-on work culture has been one of the disadvantages of remote technology.
Historically, employees were unable to access their emails or be contactable outside of the workplace, which gave them a right to disconnect at the end of the day.
However, these days, working practices are more blurred than ever before. Many of us actively check our emails on our personal devices outside our contracted hours, meaning we are becoming contactable 24/7.
This is particularly true of younger generations who have been brought up with the latest tech and are more likely to have their emails on their phone.
In fact, just two years ago, Deloitte's Mobile Consumer Survey (as reported in HRmagazine.co.uk) showed that:
One in six (16%) workers aged 18 to 24 also said they check work emails on their smartphone every hour, compared to just 5% of workers aged 55 to 75.
While some employers view this positively, believing it shows a motivated and keen workforce, others are more conscious that an always-on work culture can lead to burnout and reduced productivity.
The pandemic has caused a seismic shift for employees who have had to get used to working from home.
The lack of boundaries between home and work life means it can be much harder to distinguish between when you should or should not be responding to work inquiries.
But while the always-on work culture may be relatively new to the US, it's been a big concern for European employers for many years.
Back in 2016, the French government implemented a 'right to disconnect' rule, which made it illegal for businesses with over 50 employees to email their staff over the weekend.
All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant.
Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash, like a dog.
The texts, the messages, the emails, they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.
Source: Benoit Hamon, French socialist MP, during an interview with Hugh Schofield, BBC
Much has been written about the always-on culture in the last few years, mostly focusing on the disadvantages.
But if employers are encouraging an always-on culture, surely they will see some benefits, even if it's for their good and not the employees.
In the balance of fairness, we feel it's important to share some of the pros of an always-on culture.
It could be argued that it is beneficial for global firms to have staff working out of hours because it allows them to tap into different time zones or work with companies in other countries.
There is also an argument that allowing staff to work outside traditional working hours could enable your team to work at a time that suits their productivity and creativity.
For example, creative professionals may find that evening or weekend work could be a time when they are inspired to try new things.
Others may find that having access to their work emails outside of work emails can relieve their stress.
For example, if they've been panicking about a project during the week, if they receive an email on a Friday evening reassuring them, they can sit back and relax over the weekend.
Others find that checking their emails on a Sunday evening or first thing on a Monday morning when they wake up allows them to set their expectations for how their week could go.
For those who are self-employed or working freelance, it's almost a given that you will give yourself an 'always-on' approach to work.
After all, you need to be able to react to new opportunities and respond to inquiries as and when they come through.
Similarly, entrepreneurs can take advantage of business opportunities because they are often immediately responsive to offers.
But for every employee who believes that an 'always on work culture' is positive, many others are increasingly stressed out by the blurred boundaries emerging.
It may be natural sometimes to spend more time thinking about work – especially if you are working on a time-sensitive project.
But while overtime isn't a problem in itself, it can become a serious issue if you are continually pressured to answer emails outside your working hours or drop your plans at the whim of your boss.
Many negative issues arise from an always-on work culture.
We spend a significant proportion of our lives at work, so it's essential to be working in a job that you enjoy.
Studies have shown that those working in an always-on working culture are more likely to feel stressed, leading to a wide range of physical and mental health issues.
If you're not taking care of yourself, it could impact your sleep or eating habits and result in depression or anxiety.
It's important to note that it's not normal to feel continuously stressed about work. Unfortunately, too many people dismiss their feelings, thinking that it's a normal feeling to be dreading work.
In 2020, Aviva published a research report, 'Embracing the Age of Ambiguity', highlighting the scale of issues emerging from always-on working cultures.
For example, the report showed:
Almost half of the employees surveyed (44%) say they feel like they never fully switch off from work.
Like the Deloitte's Mobile Consumer Survey that we referenced earlier in this article, this is a huge issue for the younger generations, with 63% of young adults (18 to 24-year-olds) saying that they feel that they never fully switch off from work.
Additionally, 58% of Aviva's respondents said that the always-on work culture impacts their physical health, and 55% said work pressures affect their mental health.
Clearly, this isn't sustainable – for employees or employers.
If business leaders do not take action to prevent an always-on culture, they could end up with an entire workforce signed off on sick leave, or they will create a mass exodus.
Unfortunately, too many bosses are reliant on presenteeism. They may view candidates who are always willing to work 24/7 as the hardest working employees.
However, just because someone is always available doesn't necessarily mean they are the right person for the job.
A huge concern for HR teams is the worry that an always-on work culture could hinder diversity or equality policies.
Imagine that your company requires people to work overtime hours over a weekend.
If someone is regularly unable to drop their plans because they have family commitments, they could be overlooked for promotional opportunities when they arrive.
Unfortunately, this is the reality for many working women who often have to juggle childcare commitments and a full-time job.
It's a huge concern for those campaigning for the gender pay gap to be evened up.
A 2021 Women at Work survey has shown that work pressures are causing over half of women (53%) to feel that they are at risk of burnout, and '22% of women, both with AND without children, have experienced a setback in their career advancement over the past 12 months.'
Beyond the bigger picture aspects of an always-on work culture, many smaller, more tactical negatives are also emerging.
For example, if you are always on call, how can you prioritize your workload when you are constantly being asked to work on new projects or respond to different emails?
Part of being good at your job is being time-efficient and knowing how to create an effective to-do list that allows you to meet all of your deadlines.
But if your work is ever-changing, you could risk not knowing what tasks you should prioritize, especially if work comes from different line managers.
This could have the effect of causing you to make mistakes and miss deadlines.
How to Switch off the Always-on Work Culture?
If you are a manager or a team leader, you must consider whether you are perpetuating an always-on work culture.
Are you leading a good example to your team about taking time to themselves and understanding the importance of a work-life balance?
If you've unwittingly created or contributed to an always-on work culture, it's not too late to change.
You can take a few practical steps to switch it off and show your employees that you are considering their well-being.
Similarly, if you are an employee, you should set your own personal boundaries and make it clear to your employers that this is what you will expect moving forward.
You should stick to those timeframes if you are only contracted to work for certain hours.
Then, of course, there may be occasions when you need to do a little overtime here and there; however, the reality is that the more work you do outside of your hours, the more it will become expected.
But how much of that work actually needs to be done outside your working day?
You must set clear working hours as an employer and stick to them. In addition, you should consider implementing company-wide policies that ban the sending of emails at weekends to enable your staff the chance to relax and unwind.
If you know that you have times that you want to take to yourself, make sure that your colleagues are aware.
By being clear about your availability and, more importantly, your unavailability, you can limit how often people can contact you outside of work.
Don't be afraid to switch your phone or laptop off. And as a leader, you should actively encourage your team to do the same.
If you are somebody who is consumed by work, it can be easy for your co-workers to feel that they have to match your work ethic to be seen and rewarded. But that shouldn't be the case.
You must show good behavior and reward good habits in a managerial position.
In addition, you must demonstrate that you are taking the time to enjoy life.
For example, you are not sending out emails or answering emails late at night or in the evening.
If you are working and sending emails, you should use the 'delay send' feature on your email inbox so that your recipients do not receive them until the next working day.
What's more, you need to show that you reward your staff for their efforts. Finally, remember that presenteeism doesn't always mean the hardest-working people.
Those with good time management can often complete tasks in half the time of those who are procrastinating.
The final tip is to consider how long it takes to do a job or activity.
Are you working as productively as you could be?
People often assume that an always-on culture is because there is lots of work to do.
But the reality is that it may not be the volume of work; it could be that the person isn't working to their best ability and is taking too long to get jobs done.
There is a huge difference between those who are productive, and those who are busy.
Think about your working style – is it overly complicated? Can you simplify what you are doing? Is there any technology you could use to streamline your workload and improve your effectiveness?
Essentially, you want to find new techniques for you and your team that will allow you to complete the same workload within shorter timeframes.
You must set clear boundaries that show the difference between work and home life.
Create a routine that allows you to develop healthy habits, such as switching your phone off after a certain time, or if you work from home, take a walk at the end of the working day to mark the shift between work and home life.
The work culture is the values of your business. It encapsulates who you are, what you do, and how you work.
It shapes your expectations and sets out how you work as part of a team.
Those with good working cultures are often more successful, with happier workforces.
You need to be happy at work. If you are in a positive work culture, you can feel supported, professionally challenged, and given the tools to thrive.
In addition, positive work cultures make it easier to recruit new talent; they can be more productive and drive innovation leading to greater success.
If you are always working, you may find that your personal relationships start to suffer, or your physical and mental health could decline.
There is a reason why work-life balance is so important – if you are not taking care of yourself, your work standards will naturally lower because you will not be working as productively or creatively.
As we can see, perpetuating and encouraging an always-on working culture is not a good thing. For employees, it's a significant driver of burnout and can lead to serious physical and mental health issues.
For employers, you might think that you have a productive workforce, but the reality is that you are walking into a workplace health crisis or creating a mass exodus.
You need to think carefully about how your business is running. It's easy to sleepwalk into an always-on culture, but true leadership begins from the very top.
Your senior management team should look at their own working practices to see if they lead by example.
If they are always working, they may not realize how that impacts other people.
Therefore, you should ensure that you are working with your HR teams to create policies limiting how long an employee can work, making their health and well-being a priority.
Businesses that care for their staff will find it easier to attract and retain talent and be much better in the long run because their team will be more motivated and productive.