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There’s nobody else I’d rather lie in bed and look at my phone next to…

Posted by Phil Pringle

Phil Pringle

It’s my wife’s birthday this month and I nearly opted for a card that read: ‘There is nobody else I’d rather lie in bed and look at my phone next to’. I can see her face now… and the raised eyebrow.

It’s interesting that the message strikes a chord – I guess it’s so true it’s alarming (and therefore amusing), but it does make you think – is this really what marital bliss has come to? Sitting in silence with your loved one and checking your phone with the momentary sharing of a picture or video. I saw a couple doing this in a restaurant the other day so I guess this behaviour isn’t just restricted to private life, it’s spilling out into the public too.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on myself (or on society), the recent proliferation of internet devices presents social issues that we haven’t had to tackle before, and as such, perhaps we haven’t had time to work out what our social etiquette should be.

The topic isn’t just impacting my private life, it’s also changing life at work too. At Hay Group we call the topic ‘digitization’ and it’s a megatrend that will affect us all. It’s all about employees operating anywhere, anytime, on any device, and challenging the status quo of traditional workplaces. In particular, we look at how digitization affects employee engagement, and how businesses need to adapt (you can read the full report here).

The benefits are clear – more flexibility and more adaptability equals more well-being. Technological advances mean we can all become more efficient and work in a time/place/way the suits us and our own lifestyle. I’m a big advocate.

However with the benefits comes a clear warning. There is a danger that being ‘always on’ may mean we are ‘never off’. Stress, burnout and a general deterioration of wellbeing are the undesired but very real consequences of digitization. In Singapore (where 87% of the population own a smartphone), medical professionals are pushing for internet addiction to be recognised as a psychological condition.

Our own research also reinforces the issue with more than two-thirds (39%) of employees indicating they don’t achieve a good balance between work and home life. The fall out hits loyalty hard – of those employees that do not feel their employer supports them achieve a good work/life balance, 10% are more likely to leave their organisation.

Unsurprisingly, governments and businesses are responding:

  • In Germany the employment ministry has recently banned its managers from calling or emailing staff out of hours except in emergencies.
  • In France, a new labour agreement means that employees must ignore their bosses’ work emails once they are out of the office and relaxing at home.
  • Volkswagen has agreed to stop its Blackberry servers sending emails to some of its employees when they are off-shift.
  • Daimler, the car and truck maker, has recently implemented a new program that allows employees to set their email software to automatically delete incoming emails while they are on holiday.
  • And a new app (‘Moment’) has arrived which enables users to see how much time they’re spending on the device and set up warnings if self-imposed usage limits are breached.

Although these initiatives highlight the issue and reinforce good intentions, it’s uncertain whether they will actually make a difference to ingrained behaviours. My experience tells me that policies alone only go so far and if people really feel compelled to work all hours of the day, they’ll find a way.

From a business perspective, legislation and restrictive policies may also be counter-productive. Instead of supporting wellbeing, they may actually be damaging autonomy and flexibility – the good stuff that can help us achieve a healthier lifestyle.

It makes you wonder whether underneath the surface-level policies and legislation, there needs to be a deeper understanding of digitization and what it means for the way we work. In my eyes, a manager who sends emails to staff at 10pm isn’t necessarily demonstrating ‘always on’ behaviours. They may simply be a parent who is catching up on emails once they have put their children to bed, i.e. they’re using digitization to be flexible and support their own working style. However what does need to be understood are the expectations that surround these emails:

  • Are people supposed to be reading them?
  • Are people supposed to respond to them?
  • What’s acceptable in terms of a response time?

It’s important to create a common understanding of what’s expected. For digitization to work, and for businesses to create more engagement, there needs to be an appreciation of individualism – that’s how people will embrace the digital era in different ways. Businesses need to focus on creating a culture built on trust, respect and understanding.

Leaders should focus their people on the end goal. Rather than controlling how people embrace digitization, the emphasis should be on communicating what digitization can offer. A vision needs to be sold to every employee so that they understand the importance of wellbeing in achieving business performance. Without clarity and a common understanding, the option of being ‘always on’ can prompt unreasonable behaviours that quickly spiral into burnout. In business it’s a cultural thing, and culture can be changed through people and in particular leaders demonstrating the right behaviours. The topic might be new, but the solution is old – it needs strong leadership and management styles to create a step-change in organisational understanding and behaviour.

We all have a social responsibility to role model ‘off’ behaviour in every walk of life. Digitization requires a new social etiquette to be achieved and business leaders should take a positive, prominent role in shaping what ‘good practice’ looks like. The onus is on all of us to talk about the topic, appreciate different circumstances and reflect on what balance between ‘on’ and ‘off’ we want to achieve. I’ll start by turning my phone off tonight and buying my wife a new card.


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