Law in the Internet Society

The New Norm: Constant Availability in the Workplace

-- By MatthewSchwartz - 27 Nov 2023

Constant Availability: 24/7 Workforce

The rise of technology has simultaneously enhanced human communication and diminished “work-life balance.” The recent pandemic introduced greater remote flexibility for many knowledge workers. There are of course benefits to this: less commute time and the ability to spend more time with loved ones. However, employers have created trade-offs for this benefit—employees are now working around three hours more per day, on average, and burnout is at an elevated level.

The trend of institutional actors (the government, workplace, and school) encroaching more into our lives for their benefit is not a revolutionary concept. In Orwell’s famous book, 1984, it was assumed that mass surveillance and social control could only originate by the government; however, modern society indicates otherwise. According to Shoshana Zuboff, we are living in an age of “surveillance capitalism.” The behavioral data that both private and governmental actors collect about us are used to exploit us. Our choices are commercialized, and we are under constant surveillance and control.

The Cons of Constant Availability

Advancements in technology have encouraged more addictive behavior. In the Social Dilemma, social media executives discussed how algorithms are used to manipulate our behavior to lead to longer, more consistent engagement with the platform. Social media is meant to inspire users to interact with content or make purchases for advertised products.

The workforce is now emulating this tactic for constant engagement with knowledge workers, making more of an effort to become omnipresent, even outside of normal working hours. 35% of workers feel like they can’t turn their phone off because their boss might contact them anytime. In a 2022 study by the American Psychological Association Work and Well-Being study, 32% of workers experienced emotional exhaustion, a 38% jump from prior to the pandemic. However, research has concluded that our brains need breaks. There are physiological changes to the brain as a result of acute chronic job stress that can atrophy the brain mass and cause a decrease in brain weight. It is clear that constant availability can lead to the demise of the workforce.

A Potential Solution?

A Shorter Workweek

A solution to this issue is challenging, but necessary, given the dangers of our work detrimentally affecting our health. There eventually will become a point of diminished returns when working more actually harms employees’ productivity and therefore a business’ profitability. Finding the goldilocks zone for each employee is a guess at best.

The simple long-term solution for knowledge workers might be a shorter work week with extra hours and breaks each workday. 4 Day Week Global has implemented this strategy with many organizations. The organizations they have worked with had a 36% increase in revenue, a 42% decrease in employee resignations and a 54% reported increase in work ability from employees. The trade-off of one extra day off can mitigate stressors like the need to constantly check emails or feel like work is the most important part of one’s identity.

However, while a reduced work week might reduce some stress levels on certain days, it may not be enough to create a stricter boundary between work and personal time altogether. Rethinking the actual working day, regardless of how many there are, may be required to get to a better solution.

A Focused Workday

As employees are spending more hours dedicated to their careers, it is no surprise that many of them feel unable to focus on their own needs. Part of this may be due to the sheer amount of time workers are asked to participate in meetings—both in person and virtually through tools like Zoom. According to a study, 65% of senior managers said meetings keep them from completing their own work, while 71% found these same meetings both unproductive and inefficient.

Modifying the workday to reduce inefficiencies and give workers the time they need to focus, be creative, and decompress may prove effective. One such option may be company-wide meeting free days. This practice, which has already been implemented across numerous companies including Atlassian and Mastercard, may provide an opportunity for teams to maximize their working time, thereby reducing the need to contact one another during off hours. In fact, even one no-meeting day per week has been shown to increase satisfaction and productivity, while decreasing stress.

Companies can also think about implementing more formal workload management to ensure resources are maximized, but not overused. Consistent evaluations of worker utilization can lead to a more efficient and effective organization, as well as a healthier employee base.

Unionized Demands

As knowledge workers become an increasingly important part of large unions, like the UAW, there is an opportunity to use bargaining power to address this growing issue at the government level for relevant industries. The primary asks should be: create a formal system for tracking working hours for knowledge workers, which can help with the allocation of appropriate overtime bonuses, obligate employers to provide at least 2, 30-minute breaks during working hours for knowledge workings, require employers to post expected working hours on job postings, and mandate vacation time for all employees. While unions may only represent a subset of knowledge workers, these changes can help set the standard for non-unionized industries to follow.

Independent Work

While the above solutions require change to come directly from employers or the government, there is still an opportunity for employees to take control of their time back into their own hands. Technology may be the root of the problem discussed, but it may also present itself as a potential solution. The rise of technology has allowed more individuals to become their own boss through self-employed freelance work—an increasingly more common option during the layoffs of the pandemic and the Great Resignation that followed. And freelance workers are in great demand, with a 2023 UK study claiming 96% of companies will use freelance support during the year. If employers refuse to make major shifts, knowledge workers may have to resort to being the leaders of their own work-life balance.

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r6 - 18 Jan 2024 - 14:48:29 - MatthewSchwartz
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