Smart devices setting up workers for burnout, affecting productivity

Mobile devices have exacerbated an always-on work culture where employees work anytime, anywhere.
Companies need to help their employees learn to take time off work instead of using the Internet round the clock to reply to mails and do work-related tasks. Net photo
Companies need to help their employees learn to take time off work instead of using the Internet round the clock to reply to mails and do work-related tasks. Net photo

Mobile devices have exacerbated an always-on work culture where employees work anytime, anywhere.

They’ve contributed to the blurred distinction between when you’re “on the clock” and when you’re not.

Service industry professionals are especially tethered to these devices. There’s an assumption that using smart devices boosts productivity by allowing us to work constantly.

But we’re also jeopardising long-term productivity by eliminating predictable time off that ensures balance in our lives.

Is the obsession of regularly checking e-mail really helping anyone’s bottom line? Are the unrealistic expectations these devices facilitate setting staff up for burnout?

From my experience, this hyperconnectivity carries a cost to organisational productivity. Many months ago, top managers at my Africa-based startup decided to adopt an engagement process that allowed customers and staff to reach them 24/7.

Underpressure

There was a perception that if a customer or a colleague needed something and couldn’t get it immediately, the firm would not be taken seriously.

The staff was under intense pressure to be available whenever anyone called — it was simply expected.

Six months later, we noticed that customer complaints were actually up and team morale was down.

Which made us wonder: Why were we spoiling one another’s dinnertime with calls that could have waited until the next business day?

In her forthcoming book, “Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24-7 Habit and Change the Way You Work,’’ the Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow provides insights on this fraught relationship with emerging devices.

In an experiment that focused on mandating time off for consultants for at least one night per week, she noticed that over time their work lives improved and they were largely more productive.

For the research subjects who followed her policy of disconnecting from work at night, 78 per cent said they felt satisfied with their jobs, compared with those who ignored the policy, of whom only 49 per cent noted the same sense of satisfaction.

Her results show that we’re creating a self-perpetuating perception that working faster is better— even when speed may not be necessary.

The reality is that business processes have been changed by technology. Competition is now global and companies need to act fast to survive.

Accordingly, we have institutionalised a system in which customers and staff expect everyone to always be connected.

And, with that, instantaneous response has become a key performance metric. The impetus to examine whether what we do requires 24/7 responsiveness is overlooked.

We all work longer and harder despite the possibility that we could work better. But since everyone is doing it, it’s considered acceptable.

But here’s the thing: Business will not collapse if we don’t respond to e-mail at 11pm.

Waiting until 9am has plenty of benefits that arguably outweigh the benefits of speed, such as giving ourselves an opportunity to think through the problem and provide a better idea that customers will appreciate.

Instead of acquiescing to the knee-jerk reflex of responding to every incoming message, we should put these devices in their place— that is, to serve us, and not the other way around.

Companies need to help employees unplug.

(Of course, every business must take its own processes into consideration, but, for most companies, allowing employees to plan their time off will not generally hurt the bottom line.)

When we noticed that the always-on system was not producing better results at my firm, we phased it out of our culture.

A policy was instituted that encouraged everyone to respect time off, and discouraged people from sending unnecessary emails and making distracting calls after hours.

It’s a system that works if all of the team members commit to it.

Over time, we’ve seen a more motivated team that comes to work ready for business, and goes home to get rejuvenated. They work smarter, not blindly faster. And morale is higher.

Give it a try in your own company. As a trial, talk to your team and agree to shut down tonight. I’m confident that you’ll all feel the benefits in the morning.

Mr Ekekwe is a founder of the nonprofit African Institution of Technology.


Agencies

 

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