Work-life balance? Nope, tech has actually intensified work
BT futurologist Nicola Millard

Work-life balance? Nope, tech has actually intensified work

13 Jun 2014

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted modern technology would give workers more leisure time. It seems he was wrong, as psychologists and recruitment experts argue that technology has intensified work and breaches the boundaries of the 9-to-5 job.

In recent months, the world was aghast at the very notion that France might be banning work emails after 6pm – it wasn’t true – but it did get everyone thinking about the intrusion smart devices are making into our personal lives long after we have downed tools.

“In the past it was predicted that at this stage we only work a three-day week because of new technology, because the theory was it would leave us with much less to do,” observes BT futurologist Nicola Millard.

“The opposite has happened, technology has actually intensified work and extended the boundaries of 9-to-5 jobs because these devices are always on.”

A recent survey by Fastnet Recruitment found that 81pc of employers and 61pc of employees are finding it difficult to achieve work-life balance because of communications technology.

Almost two-thirds of employees access their work email account on their personal device and respond to work emails outside office hours and worse again two-thirds of employers expect their workers to check emails outside of work hours.

In France, trade unions have recently imposed restrictions on French employers requiring “disconnection of communication tools” for contract workers in the hi-tech and consulting sectors. However, Irish workers and employers were not in favour of such measures, with 51pc of employers and 75pc of employees stating their objection to any similar restrictions in Ireland. 

“Clearly there is a balance to be struck here” said Niamh O’Driscoll, managing director of Fastnet Recruitment & Search.

“Ireland is lucky enough to be home to a large number of highly successful multinational firms and there is no doubt that the flexibility of our workforce and ease of doing business here has consistently influenced positive FDI decisions.  

“We have moved up nine places in the last four years in overall competitiveness in the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook and punch well above our weight in many areas, ranking first for flexibility and adaptability of workforce and first for attitudes to globalisation.  

“These are our trump cards – we won’t be switching off our smartphones anytime soon! The ability to have a flexible schedule because of advances in technology would appear to present opportunities for improvements in work-life balance, however, these survey results show that technology’s influence on flexibility can just as easily undermine the quest for a work-life balance. Working ‘smarter’ within a global marketplace has now become a firm priority for many of us.”

Are mobile devices actually making us less productive?

Millard observes that people’s fascination with gadgets is part of the reason we are unlikely to abandon them any time soon. “These devices behave like a three year-old stamping their feet in a tantrum in a digital sense – they flash, buzz and beep and we are compelled to look.

“But they actually make us less productive. We are actually working longer hours, but are we working productively or are we working longer hours because we are being less productive?

“We are multitasking, trying to do more and more but in reality we time slice. This is the brain juggling manically. If we physically juggled all day long we would be exhausted but we are mentally juggling instead and this is actually making us tireder all the time.

“Another problem is task-switching – being interrupted by a phone call or email damages productivity. Research by London Business School reckons we are interrupted once every three minutes. Being distracted prevents you completing tasks and heightens stress levels.”

Go to your quiet place

Millard says it’s not just a technology problem. It’s a people problem because offices can be distracting places. “Open-plan offices seem like a good idea but they are magnets for meetings and managers, the very thing that destroy your train of thought and prevent you from completing tasks.”

She pointed to research by Cambridge University about creating choices in office spaces whereby rather than having a one-size fits all, offices have social and quiet places to enable people to communicate but also complete tasks without distraction.

“We need to rethink the office. The reason we go our offices is to socialise about work. We need to build offices as a collaboration tool but also have spaces where it is quiet and people working on things aren’t going to get interrupted. We are starting to see some very creative work spaces emerge.

“It also depends on the work you do, if it’s creative, activity-based work you need to create collaborative spaces where people can work as a team and be productive. If it is quiet work that requires thought such as writing documents, create quiet spaces. It’s really about trying to rethink that.”

Working from home is still being slowly but steadily embraced by workforces, as technologies such as broadband make it more feasible.

“Home working is less distracting if you are focused. At BT we are credited with being a pioneer of home working. We started in 1992 and now 10pc of our workforce works from home. We actually get 20pc more productivity from those guys because that’s the workstyle that they want. They are also less likely to get sick.”

Millard says it is about creating choice. She could work from home but chooses not to because she likes the social interaction of the workplace. “If I need to work quietly away from the buzz of the office I like to retreat to my ‘coffice’ – I go out for a coffee and bring my smartphone – anywhere such as a coffee shop or hotel lobby where I can get on with my work but still enjoy the buzz of a room uninterrupted.”

Email is dead, long live email

Millard points out that if anything, not only are workers juggling email but now they have to handle social media and messaging apps, from Twitter, to WhatsApp, Yammer, Snapchat, Facebook, Viber and more.

“I wish I could predict email’s demise but it’s still a good information tool. But in terms of real collaboration I believe social media is becoming stronger as a collaboration tool.

“Email unfortunately is a black hole for collaboration and there is a case for stepping back and asking is email the most appropriate means for collaboration, should we use chat instead? Some companies have gone as far as banning email altogether.

“Then again, if I’m working for a west-coast US company, there is going to be a bulk of interaction after 6pm – do I necessarily want to be trying to engage in real-time after 6pm?”

Stress management

So all of this begs the question, is mobile technology actually making our lives more stressful?

“Classical psychology will tell you that if you have high demand and low control you will get stress. Technology in the workplace – how do you get to take back control?”

She said that in the UK, one in three executives admits to being stressed at work.

“I recommend what is termed the Balanced Communications Diet for Business – like any diet, it involves a five-step plan around creating awareness of your behaviour. I discovered that email was sucking away 40pc of my day.

“I had to learn to be disciplined – I simply forced myself to turn the email off in order to concentrate.”

Now that sounds like a plan.


John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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