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Smarter Working Practices: How to harness human potential and support wellbeing in an always-on world

This blog article about smarter working practices in the always-on world is courtesy of our Workforce Institute at Kronos EMEA Director Claire Richardson. You can read all of the prior articles we've written on the topic of  "The Always-On Con" in a digital magazine which can be downloaded from the Kronos UK website.

In the last 15 years, knowledge working has changed enormously. Thanks to cheaper devices, the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and laptops and the ubiquity of wireless networks and social media we are _always on”: that is, we exist in a state of being constantly connected, available and digitally present.

In some ways this is wonderful. From the point of view of the employee, we are better able to work from home or on the road and we can flex our time, making time to see our kids in the school play by starting work early or finishing late, for example. But in other ways always-on can be a con: insidiously we work longer hours, we feel the need to reply to messages and voicemails as soon as possible, we work at odd times of the day to stay in touch with international colleagues and we suffer from FOMO: fear of missing out.

The same conundrum applies to the employer. What are smarter working practices in the organization and in an always-on world? We urgently need to consider how we get the best out of people but we have to make sure that we treat them sympathetically and not as assets to be sweated. We need to think about time as a precious commodity and the ways in which we all use it. And finally, we need to think about technology as a resource that we consume with full respect for employees.

The three pillars to smarter working practices: people, time and technology 

It is helpful for employers to think about people, time and technology as three pillars of organisational life, but they need to do so by always communicating and empathizing with employees.

People. Our best chance to drive innovation and competitive differentiation is through our people. They bring experience, insights, intuition and emotional intelligence. But human beings need to have a balance between their free time and their working lives. Supporting that balance is essential or we risk losing people to burn-out and negative working practices.

Time. Time is finite so thinking methodically about how best we manage our time is crucial for employees and managers. Too often, time is squandered on non-differentiated tasks and too often we work long hours in an effort to be maximally efficient. Time management is a useful discipline for understanding how people work and potentially changing patterns to suit their skills and to keep them fresh and motivated.

Technology. Technology is an enabler and is neutral: it can be used for good or ill. Today, we are at a time when converging technologies are creating amazing opportunities to accelerate how we develop new goods and services, to more intelligently sell and market and how we expand all over the world. Most notably, mobility, the web and cloud computing, augmented by social networks, are making it possible to accelerate the pace of change. But we need to take care that that rate of change does not come at the cost of exploitative attitudes that leave our people frazzled and feeling neglected or overwhelmed.

To begin to get a grip on how well you know how you are using the three pillars, ask yourself the following questions:

People Do we have strong processes for hiring and retention?

Do we correctly match the skills of our people with their roles?

Do we track employee satisfaction and act on findings?

Time Do we formally monitor the time our employees spend on work?

Do we have formal policies on working time and abide by working time regulations?

Do we communicate our expectations of working hours or act when we suspect employees are pushing themselves too hard?

Technology Do we take seriously our responsibility to employees when we equip them with tools that let them be _always on'?

Do we track usage of time spent outside of office hours on tools such as email?

Do we provide suitable protections and training regarding use of technology?

The always-on con

The term _always on' is often used approvingly and it is indeed remarkable that we can get more done than ever before. The smartphone, for example, has become an open sesame device, connecting us to a world of information and apps in real time. Many of us keep our devices with us 24 hours a day.

But it's at least questionable if smarter working practices mean that we spend as many hours as we do consuming information and updating networks. The challenge is that our working and non-working lives have edged into each other; boundaries are blurred and it may be that we need to go some way back to more formal working processes and a recognition that there are times when we are working and times when we are not.

If we think of email as indicative of the way digital tools have us in thrall, consider some of the following statistics from research conducted for the Workforce Institute:

  • An average 68% of French, German and UK users said they do some work at home.
  • Only 50% of respondents said they are more productive as a result of flexible working schemes.
  • Younger people in particular are less likely to regulate the balance between work and non-work: 46% of under-25s get less than six hours sleep on workdays - and therefore risk becoming burnt out.

One aspect of work, email addiction, has even spawned a book: Jocelyn K. Glei's Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions and Get Real Work Done. The author suggests some sensible solutions such as closing down email conversations, setting aside a specific time to check emails, creating an email _hierarchy' based on importance of message and sender and letting others know about how you plan to use email.

Now add other addictive habits such as checking social media, participating in collaboration hubs such as Slack, searching the web for information, and it's clear that, when it comes to smarter working practices, just adding more digital tools to the workplace might not be the right answer.

What are we doing with our people, our time and our use of technology? Is it making us happier and more efficient or are at least some of the outcomes dangerous? Smart employers need to pay attention to these questions… and find better answers.

Share your insights!

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