24-7 work culture

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The concept of a 9-5 workday has been gone for a long time. But we’ve replaced it with a far more extreme timetable: 24/7. Technology has made it increasingly easy to take our work with us when we leave the office. Think of office life 25 years ago: your phone and computer stayed at your desk until you came back the next day. Now we carry both in our pocket. We are always reachable, we can always send emails. We don’t “leave” work anymore. It leaves with us. Of course, having this portability makes it easier to tend to doctor’s appointments, family emergencies, and the like. Yet, something that seemingly makes work more flexible can also chain us to our work.

Women may bear more of the burden. According to an article in The New York Times:

“When a man left at 5 p.m., people at the office assumed he was meeting a client, Ms. Reid said. When a woman left, they assumed she was going home to her children.”

Yet men feel the pinch as well.

“Stephen Thau, a partner at the multinational law firm Morrison & Foerster, said gender stereotypes also made it challenging for men to juggle family life, because there was an expectation that they had stay-at-home wives managing the home front.”

High income professionals were affected the most. Workers in the 60-80th percentile worked around 2,000 hours per year, compared to the US worker average of just over 1800 hours.

Have we gone too far? In California, a lawsuit was recently filed when a sales professional discovered that her employer had been tracking her via the GPS on her phone, even when she wasn’t supposed to be working.

While the observations and studies lead to troubling conclusions, the solutions are far more nebulous. Articles abound on how to “unplug” from work. But the reality of simply not attending to your buzzing phone is not as clear cut. We work globally, and time zones likely preclude your typical work hours. And the ease with which you can simply take care of a “one-off” request or problem snowballs into expectations that you are available 24/7.

Boston Consulting Group: A Case Study

Leslie Perlow, author of Sleeping with Your Smartphone, and a Harvard Business School professor, conducted a study at The Boston Consulting Group and recorded startling findings:

“The big problem wasn’t so much the long hours and incessant travel…Rather, Perlow discovered, it was the complete lack of predictability or control we had over their daily lives. When consultants woke up in the morning, they literally had no idea how many hours they would be putting in that day. When Perlow asked them in the morning how long they expected to work that day, they underestimated by up to 30 percent.”

Perlow helped BCG develop a program wherein team members would meet at the beginning of a project and determine parameters, such as travel, response times, and meetings. In addition, each member of the team would get a period of time “offline” each week.

Is it working? Grant Freeland, a senior partner at BCG, says that teams participating in this program are more productive and happier, and 74% more likely to remain at BCG.

It’s somewhat troubling to learn that a major firm needed a regimented program to assist their employees in unplugging. But that gives an indication of how entrenched and habit-forming technology can be. Just as many problems as it solves, it creates new ones. Our challenge is to rule technology and not let it rule us.

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