“Always On” Workplace Culture: Has It Gone Too Far?

I used to advocate for work-life integration rather than work-life balance. It seemed more fitting as balance is subjective with many opinions of what good looks like. And, it seemed everyone could agree work and life needed to be better integrated – even if we couldn’t settle on a definition of balance.

As a result of the COVID-19 lockdown and more working from home, this integration started running on steroids. Wish granted. Now, can I take some of it back?

Work-life integration has created a real lack of boundaries between work and life. This has a few positive consequences and many negative ones. Brynjolfsson et al’s 2020 study showed 50% of US employees are now working from home. This is up from 15% prior to the pandemic. A Gartner 2020 study shows that is not going to shift entirely when COVID-19 is behind. Eighty-two percent of organization leaders say they will continue to support part-time remote work, and nearly 47% of leaders saying they will support people working from home full-time indefinitely.

Before half of us were working at home, there was already concern that a cultural crisis was blooming in many organizations. Many have labeled this crisis “always on”. It’s defined as a workplace culture where technology advancements and blurry work-life boundaries have made it more difficult to switch off after work.

This is a paradox, as parts of “always on” are self-reported as beneficial to the individual and organization. Yet, people share the negative aspects are also significant. I suspect the risks of working this way will increase for both the organization and individual over time as it becomes a more sustained – yet less sustainable – way we work in the future.

Here’s some evidence that there’s likely more harm than good, in case you needed convincing. Moss (2021) partnered with the Harvard Business Review to collect feedback in the Fall of 2020 from more than 1,500 respondents in 46 countries in a large variety of industries, roles and seniority.

  • 55% of respondents didn’t feel they were able to balance home and work life — with 53% specifically citing homeschooling.
  • 25% felt unable to maintain a strong connection with family, 39% with colleagues and 50% with friends.
  • Only 21% rated their well-being as “good,” and a mere 2% rated it as “excellent.”

You’ve likely validated this study through your own emotions, conversations with peers and/or observations on how your own organization has shifted communication norms over the years. Fortunately, many are recognizing the mental health challenges that come with this culture shift. The use of mental health first aid to combat this challenge has been an emerging topic. What isn’t emerging is what we can do to about it in the first place – tackling it at the root cause. Sadly, academic research agenda haven’t been able to keep up with the pace of change with technology and boundaryless work.

So, how do we close the gap? I’ll be sharing more on how to shift away from “always on” in a future white paper, including effective interventions that maximize your effort and impact on your organization.

Optimizing remote culture is a hug part of creating a healthy organization – something I’m crazy passionate about! If you have any questions or I can help you strategize, please reach out to me or send me a note on LinkedIn. You can also drop us a line or tweet at us!

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