Why an Always-On Culture is Not Sustainable or Beneficial

Posted: 09/14/2018 - 22:00
I was recently watching a fly-on-the-wall programme about a car business. The show focused on people’s different roles and how they were trying to balance competing priorities while keeping to tight deadlines and within budget. Cut to a shot in Spain where the director of the business is on holiday. For the next five minutes we see how the director calls for an update every day. The interviewer then speaks to all of the staff who gleefully tell the camera when he has called them. Finally, the deputy director is filmed walking through the building talking about how the director likes to check-in to see ‘how things are going.’   
What is wrong with this working environment and the actions of the director? 
For me, the lack of trust by the director is astonishing. I’m assuming he has trained and empowered his staff during the time he is at work, so that he can have an uninterrupted holiday, so why does he feel the need to check in? What is most worrisome is the example he is setting for the rest of the business. I absolutely believe in leadership by example, but here he is showing that there is no downtime and a precious week abroad should be punctuated by daily calls back to the office.   
Does this mean that everyone needs to do the same? I hope not. 
Recently, Vistage conducted research among a group of CEOs and found that 50 percent fail to take their full holiday entitlement during the year. This is bound to have a cascade effect throughout the organisation, which is unhealthy for everyone involved. If you’re not yet convinced that this is an issue or worthy of the time of a C-suite executive, consider that a court recently awarded £53,000 to a French worker who was required to have his phone on at all times. 
As mobile phones, laptops and tablets have become the norm, we have created an environment in which ‘always-on’ can flourish. In too many cases, leaders have not sought to stop this happening and have enjoyed the responsiveness and access to key people outside of normal working hours. For those who have a mobile phone from their employer and are allowed to use it as their personal phone as well, this cements the ability to contact people whenever an employer wishes. 
The French worker described earlier enjoyed the protection of a law in France where they have the ‘right to disconnect’ from emails out of hours. As a leader, how do you feel about this in your business?   
Take a few minutes to consider what would happen if you encouraged people to disconnect: 
  • What skills and knowledge will be transferred between colleagues to support the disconnection from work?
  • Would an uninterrupted rest mean increased performance when they returned?
  • How would behaviours within the business change if the leadership team set the example?
  • Would this highlight areas that need more support to cut the over-reliance on unpaid overtime? 
Now some people may be reading this and getting slightly agitated that I’m suggesting they stop the unpaid work that happens. In fact, they have probably gotten used to this and now rely on the extra capability and agility it brings to the workplace. But what about the health risks this poses for people? Stress and mental health issues (including anxiety) continue to be in the top five reasons for both short- and long-term absences.   
In 1976, Charles Handy published Understanding Organisations, which has been used across the world by business schools, students and academics. Even at that time, Handy recognised the implications of stress and devoted pages of his book to discussing the impact this can have on people and the organisation. For the sake of clarity, I’m referring to stress as a negative effect (strain) and not a stimulating pressure that some will offer as an excuse. 
Handy notes that “Stress should not be the battle honour of the committed executive. Type-A people, the thrusters, provide the dynamism of the organisation but, left alone, they can do enormous harm to themselves and to others.”  Powerful words that have been with us for decades, yet as the stressors have increased what have we done to control them? 
As a child, I remember my father, who was a bank manager, bringing home a briefcase full of work on most nights. He didn’t have a mobile phone or the internet and his to-do pile physically sat in front of him. 
The future of work sees an increased blurring of the lines between “being at” work and “not being at” work. Work was previously defined as attending a particular place, for a specified length of time, to use a range of tools and equipment to produce an output. This ended when the employee clocked-out and left the location to return home. This is no longer the case. We now have the internet, emails, many different collaboration tools, discussion forums and webcam software that can accommodate many people at once. Social media has a role to play in this as people seek to be involved in discussions. Have you ever felt left out when you realised a Twitter discussion had already taken place and you saw it two hours after the last tweet? This is the source of nightmares for some people. 
If you’re a CEO or CHRO, you have the responsibility to consider what “always on” means within your business and identify those most at risk. If this is not something that you want to do, imagine being in a court room explaining to the judge what you personally did to prevent the burnout of an employee who is now suing for damages. As a starting point, here are six questions to ask: 
  • Where do we rely on out-of-hours coverage and is this properly resourced?
  • Which of our executive team act as always-on?
  • Which of our executive team find a way to switch off and what can we learn?
  • Is our induction programme clear about the company’s expectations for people to have downtime?
  • Do we actively discourage always-on?
  • Do we challenge those who can’t switch off and put in place measures to help them? 
Just as I was about to finish writing this article, another news item arrived in my feed entitled “Why checking your emails after work is hurting your relationship.” Being “always on” is not going away and will remain a problem for leaders to tackle across their businesses. There will be more tribunals on this subject in the coming years as the effects of always being connected are fully appreciated and people seize the opportunity to remedy a poor situation. We all need to look at how we work and take action.   
Take a look in your sent items…what time did you send your last work email, text or tweet last night?

About The Author

Andy Davies's picture
Andy Davies is an HR professional, consultant and facilitator who has operated as a senior manager in several sectors including higher education, defence, civil service and local government. Andy has provided expert employment law advice on restructures, disciplinary cases, grievances and recruitment issues to senior leaders. His expertise also includes designing successful strategies and systems for recruitment, reward, management development and performance management. He is currently Head of Professional Services Enablement at People First
Andy holds an MSc in Human Resource Management, MBA and is a chartered member of the CIPD.
You can connect with Andy on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/andydavieshr/ and Twitter: twitter.com/mustard1973