How the digital workplace is affecting employees’ work/life balance

Workspace

Employees’ ability to disconnect outside of working hours seems nothing more than wishful thinking, the quest for decent quality of working life encourages us to rethink this delicate balance between taking employees’ personal needs into consideration and ensuring that individual workers and the company as a whole manage to improve efficiency and increase productivity.

The inevitable and inescapable digitalisation of companies, established as the ‘new normal’, the integration of new generations of workers, and the cost-effective reorganisation of workspaces (with flexible working hours and open-plan offices) require us to redefine the way in which work is organised and where it is carried out.

And as employees’ ability to disconnect seems nothing more than wishful thinking, the quest for decent quality of working life encourages us to rethink this delicate balance between taking employees’ personal needs into consideration and ensuring that individual workers and the company as a whole manage to improve efficiency and increase productivity.

CIOs play a major role in this transition, but do they have the necessary means to control it?

 Always being available at a moment’s notice is the new normal

In her book entitled “Intimacy at Work”*, anthropologist Stefana Broadbent explains that there is a delay in the uptake of each new communication channel on account of the fact that users find it difficult to manage their own availability. This phenomenon is the result and manifestation of a fear of becoming “too available and too accessible and of being disturbed too easily”.

As one of these new channels, “instant messaging was emerging at the time as a really disruptive channel: it introduced the idea of being continuously in contact”. CIOs could introduce rules on the proper usage of these new tools or control the number of them in use.

However, this “ASAP culture” is thriving throughout the business world and imposing a sense of immediacy and urgency on account of the instantaneous nature of communications. This phenomenon is only compounded by the pressure imposed by social media, where immediate responses are required all the time.

The result is a new sense of anxiety commonly referred to as FOMO (fear of missing out) and so people feel compelled to stay constantly connected. Mobile phones, which are already known for encouraging this kind of behaviour, only serve to exacerbate matters: according to Deloitte**, in 2018, Americans checked their smartphones an average of 52 times a day!

Recent awareness surrounding the issue encourages us to reconsider this sense of immediacy and our relationship with time and to get a better handle on our dependence on technology. iPhones, for example, now help you to measure, in real time, the amount of screen time you spend on each application and the number of notifications you receive per hour.

 “Dependent smartphone” users

Mobile phones are the perfect example, as these days they enable users to make videos, take photos, have fun (watching films), pay for goods and services, travel (with tickets and boarding passes), find their way somewhere (with Waze and Google Maps), identify themselves (with badges), connect (via the Internet), wake up, and communicate via voice calls, text messages and video calls, etc. And regardless of whether this is for personal or professional reasons, screens are taking over our everyday lives.

A study conducted by B2X in five countries in 2017 found that 11 per cent of Americans would give up their partner or spouse for a month in order to not lose their phone [for a year], 56 per cent would not trade in their smartphone [for a month] for a 10 per cent salary increase and 50 per cent would not give up their smartphone [for a month] for an extra [week] of holiday.

What’s more, there is a growing trend of employees spending their lunch breaks in front of a screen, and even at times when they have the opportunity to engage with colleagues, for example during coffee breaks, they are rarely without their smartphones.

This erosion of our personal lives in favour of our professional lives is also the result of the fact that we are constantly disrupted by multiple notifications, potential working hours are being extended, flexible office strategies are being developed and teleworking is becoming increasingly common.

In fact, it is, by extension, the result of what is referred to these days as the digital workplace.

 Redefining the digital workplace

What kind of professional balance can be found in a hyper-connected space where you are constantly being disrupted? Companies are increasingly tending to adopt the new rhythms (in terms of workplaces and working hours) of their employees.

It is not the technology that is an issue, but the way it is used and so rules on proper usage need careful thought, and the role of management will be crucial here. Redefining a company’s digital workplace will provide an unprecedented opportunity to rethink people’s relationship with their work.

As quality of working life is becoming one of the main concerns for HR, managers and CIOs, rules on the proper usage of communication tools should be implemented and teams should be provided with support during this digital transition which can, in certain respects, be invasive.