Managing “always on” Mobility and the work-life balance in organisations*


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Managing “always on” Mobility and the work-life balance in organisations*

  1. 1. Managing “always on” Mobility and the work-life balance in organisations* Written by the Economist Intelligence Unit personal lives by obliging them to bring work home”.2 Discussions about “always on” can stir emotions, as demonstrated in a lengthy debate running recently in the The Financial Times about how accessible employees should be while on holiday.3 Concerns about the side effects of 24/7 connectivity are by no means a reason to curtail mobility, but organisations looking to maximise its benefits to the business should be considering how to help employees to manage the inevitable stresses. A degree of culture change is certainly in order in many firms to foster effective mobile working; helping employees and managers understand how to “switch off” should be part of this. Time to think T he era of the always-on workforce is upon us. Mobile technologies have created an environment of ubiquitous connectivity in which employees can be accessible at any time of the day, any day of the week. According to a 2011 study, 91% of employees using mobile devices in their jobs said they regularly checked their devices for messages outside of working hours.1 The benefits that such connectivity brings to employees and the business are indisputable. Greater productivity, better responsiveness to customers, colleagues and managers, faster decision-making, and the ability to work flexibly (untethered from the office desk) are the most prominent, and the list is longer. For employees looking to balance workplace demands with personal challenges such as childcare, mobility is an enormous boon. Such levels of accessibility can be intrusive, however, as the boundaries blur between work and home. In an August 2013 study published by the consultancy Deloitte, the majority of surveyed British employees said that mobile technology has helped them to improve their worklife balance. At the same time, 45% complained that “it impacts their *This and other articles about the challenges and opportunities of mobility, sponsored by EE, can be found at The iPass Global Mobile Workforce Report, Q3 2011. Deloitte, “Upwardly Mobile: Redefining business mobility in Britain”, August 2013. 3. Lucy Kellaway, “Must I check emails on holiday?”,, August 13, 2013, and “The email refuseniks have been gaining ground”,, August 28, 2013. 1. 2. Mobile technology is not the only driver of always-on connectivity. According to Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and author of The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here, the international dimension also needs to be considered. “Globalisation means that many people are now working in situations where colleagues, suppliers and clients are in another time zone. The consequence is, even if you don’t want to work outside normal working hours, somebody you work with will be doing so.” Nonetheless, humans need time to process the information they receive. Clear thinking requires time and space, which can be limited if people are constantly having to respond to each other. And given that numerous studies illustrate the health benefits of time away from the office, taking the office everywhere is not ideal. As a consequence, working practices and operational models need to be adjusted (necessary for bringing about cultural change) to reap the improvements in productivity, responsiveness and employee flexibility, while ensuring that people can switch off when not at work. This is not an easy balance to strike, not least because traditional organisational models often reward people who are more visibly productive. Based on her Future of Work research, Ms Gratton recommends responding at the levels of the corporation, the team and the individual. “24/7 working crept up on people; it is demanding in both time and effort. Corporations large and small have been built for stability, but they need to think about how to manage [this new type of working environment],” she says. “We’re not seeing rapid change but we can see the catch-up taking place.” s p o ns o r ed b y :
  2. 2. Trial and error Many examples of companies trying to address the issue come from the technology sector, from firms such as Cisco, eBay and Google. While these examples sometimes link to general empowerment of employees (such as Google’s “20% time”, which enables employees to work on their own projects one day a week) or enforcement of holidays and days off, often they focus on controlling the biggest catalyst of out-of-hours communications—email. Firms from other industries are also seeking solutions. In 2011, prompted by its work council, auto manufacturer Volkswagen implemented an evening and weekend restriction in Germany on corporate email being sent to mobile devices. And UK retailer Sainsbury has similarly introduced email-free Fridays to prevent weekend seepage of communications. A more draconian approach is Yahoo’s decision in early 2013 to ban home working; the move was followed a week later by US retailer Best Buy. Defending Yahoo’s decision, CEO Marissa Mayer said that people are “more collaborative and innovative when they’re together”. Ms Gratton agrees: “Some organisations lost touch with the fact that humans are incredibly sociable.” To be sure, improving team cohesion is the primary rationale for the Yahoo move, rather than easing employees’ out-of- Derek Thompson, “Marissa Mayer Is Wrong: Working From Home Can Make You More Productive”, The Atlantic, February 25, 2013. 5. “Emails over weekend rob employee of downtime”, Anchorage Daily News, October 9, 2011. 4. office work load. The jury is out as to what effects it will have. It will almost certainly reduce flexibility, and some observers believe it will be detrimental rather than conducive to productivity.4 With universally applicable solutions elusive, Ms Gratton believes that all parties need to adopt a spirit of trial and error. “I’m a great believer in experimentation. It’s about checks and balances, choices and consequences.” Organisations need to set boundaries and define business models according to their own needs and constraints, and teams and individuals need to test out ideas and practices. Corporate strategies can easily be undermined if managers and staff are not able to keep to the rules. “Your boss needs to realise that when he sends you emails, you feel an obligation he may not intend,” suggests Lynne Curry of The Growth Company, a US-based consultancy.5 Although some cultural change will be required to embed new practices, certain time-tested principles will continue to prevail in the workplace, wherever it is—for example, keeping work meaningful and interesting, providing useful feedback, and encouraging a sense of autonomy. There are no wrong answers, apart from the assumption that the traditional status quo can prevail, says Ms Gratton. “Don’t imagine that what worked in the past will work in the future. Not everyone wants to work like us baby boomers.”