- Talent Management
Today, more and more workers are expected to be on-call 24/7 either to respond to co-workers and business associates in other time zones around world or simply to demonstrate their full commitment to their job and employer. A new study published in the June 2016 Harvard Business Review reports that while workers are adopting various coping strategies to survive the 24/7 workplace, no one is coping particularly well.
The rise of the 24/7 workplace has been driven by several factors. First, there is the simple fact that with the Internet and more recently, with the smart phone, we can now access our work communications anytime and from any location. Whether you’re running on a treadmill at the gym, at your child’s school concert or about to go to the sleep, you’re able to access and respond to your work communications. While it may appear minor, when a colleague texts you at 7:30 pm and asks you to upload a document and you take time away from a family dinner to do so, you’re participating in the 24/7 workplace. When you get up for a glass of water at 3:00 am, check your phone and then respond to a coworker’s or client’s question, you’re also on the 24/7 clock.
Another technological-driven factor contributing to the rise of the 24/7 workplace is the changing nature of workplace performance. Over the past decade, measuring workplace performance has become increasingly important, but it has also changed. As old-style interview and observation based performance tools have been replaced with digital alternatives, employees’ online engagements have become a key part of the how workplace performance is measured. In most cases, the more engagement (and the faster one’s response), the better one will perform in reviews. Being on 24/7, then, has–in some workplaces–become critical to ensuring an optimal performance review.
Finally, there’s the global scope of today’s workplace. Increasingly, even small companies are comprised of workers in many time zones. People are also increasingly doing business with partners around the globe. This too is driving the rise of the 24/7 workplace, albeit arguably not as directly as the aforementioned factors. Here, bear in mind the while many North American companies expect employees to be on 24/7, in many European countries, where workers have access to the same technologies, the 24/7 workplace is still neither readily accepted nor even tolerated.
Tales of time-hungry organizations—from Silicon Valley to Wall Street and from London to Hong Kong—abound. Managers routinely overload their subordinates, contact them outside of business hours, and make last-minute requests for additional work. To satisfy those demands, employees arrive early, stay late, pull all-nighters, work weekends, and remain tied to their electronic devices 24/7. And those who are unable—or unwilling—to respond typically get penalized. By operating in this way, organizations pressure employees to become what sociologists have called ideal workers: people totally dedicated to their jobs and always on call.
The study, carried out by Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan, further reports that different workers are responding to the 24/7 workplace in different ways and with varying levels of success. Specifically, they report that workers are responding in three ways: accepting, passing or revealing.
Workers who accept the situation simply make themselves available 24/7. Accepting, Reid and Ramarajan emphasizes, has mixed consequences: “When work is enjoyable and rewarding, an accepting strategy may be beneficial, allowing people to succeed and advance in their careers. But a professional identity that crowds out everything else makes people more vulnerable to career threats, because they have psychologically put all their eggs in one basket.” Most notably, they emphasize, “When job loss or other setbacks occur, accepters find it particularly difficult to cope.”
Then, there are the passers–the people who pretend to be on 24/7 and yet continue to carry on with their lives. Do they get away with it? Most of the time, they do. As Reid and Ramarajan report that passers tend to have just as strong performance reviews as accepters but again, there are consequences: “Although passing enables people to survive in demanding cultures without giving their all to work, passers pay a psychological price for hiding parts of themselves from their colleagues, superiors, and subordinates. Human beings have a need to express themselves and to be known by others. When important aspects of their identities cannot be shared at work, people may feel insecure and inauthentic—not to mention disengaged.” They further observe, “Over time, passers have a relatively high turnover rate.” In other words, passing may not be a long-term solution.
The final major category discussed in Reid and Ramarajan’s study entails revealing one’s true feelings about the 24/7 workplace. What is the fate of revealers? Again, while revealers gain by being true to themselves and their priorities, revealing is not without risks. At the consulting firm where Reid and Ramarajan carried out their study, they discovered that “performance reviews and promotion data showed that revealers paid a substantial penalty.” For example, they report, “One consultant indicated his unwillingness to make work his top priority when he asked for paternity leave. With his wife eight months pregnant, the soon-to-be father expected a temporary reprieve. Instead, he faced questions about his dedication.” This type of experience, Reid and Ramarajan emphasize, is not unusual for revealers.
Reid and Ramarajan maintain:
If employees felt free to draw some lines between their professional and personal lives, organizations would benefit from greater engagement, more-open relationships, and more paths to success.
While Reid and Ramarajan encourage managers and corporate leaders to value the whole employee and respect employees’ work/life balance needs, many workplaces have already moved deeply into the 24/7 or always-on paradigm. It seems likely, therefore, that it will take more than good intentions to return to an era when most white collar workplaces shut down at 5:00 pm and weekends and holidays were strictly off limits.