It is tempting not to read the news at the moment as the pre-election character assassinations turn to post election character assassinations. However, two articles caught my eye last week and it is with some optimism that an important conversation appears to be shifting. The endless hand wringing over being connected 24/7 and the gloomy outlook that we will all become vegetative smartphone addicts, seems to be shifting to recognize that the problem is not connectivity in and of itself. We like to be connected. The problem is that we cannot keep working the same way. We need to refocus how we see and understand work in a more connected world.
Both articles coincidentally appeared on September 12. The first from the Sydney Morning Herald headed “More people are choosing to opt out of working full-time”, and the second from the Harvard Business Review blog titled “Welcome to the 72 Hour Work Week”. Aha, you say….more of the same. We are burning out from work overload due to excessive connectivity through smartphones and other mobile devices. However, while both articles refer to work burnout, interestingly ( and refreshingly) they are not positioning the smartphone as the culprit. Rather they both suggest that we need to use the connectivity afforded by mobile connectivity and disrupt the way we are working.
In the US a survey of executives, managers and professionals (apparently now known as EMP’s) are connected to work on their smartphones an average of 72 hours per week (i.e. 13.5 hours or more on weekdays and about 5 hours on weekends). While this does seem a lot, it is not the connectedness that bothers those EMPs, in fact they really like being connected. Rather it is that companies use the connectivity capability to compensate for inefficiencies and problematic processes.
“The message is clear. EMPs don’t necessarily mind being connected to work for more than 8 hours a day. But they are upset when it happens because leaders don’t respect their time or their official work day is wasted, so they have to make up that time working from their laptops or smartphones at home”
Put that message together with evidence in the Australian workplace that increasing numbers of people are opting out of full-time work and choosing to work casually or part-time in order to avoid the long hours that have become the organizational norm, and we start to see a new conversation emerging. We need to re-think the way we understand work. Work space, work time and how work is done.
The research that I have done, together with colleagues, on connectivity in the Australian financial services industry suggests that being able to be connected is both desirable and relieves work stress. The problem occurs when we cannot control the connectivity. We liken it to the ‘connective tap’. We want to turn the flow of connectivity up when we need to be fully focused and down (but not off) when we just need to keep an eye on things. To do that we need to rethink how we use mobile technology to reshape our work spaces and work time. Rather than simply automating old inefficiencies and doing more of it, we need to disrupt work itself. As Jennifer Deal says in her HBR blog:
“We’ll never be truly disconnected from work again. But smart organizations will make sure their employees appreciate that connectedness.”