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How organizations can help employees be consciously digital

Today's post is courtesy of Anastasia Dedyukhina, founder of Consciously Digital™.  Anastasia recently published _Homo Distractus' ­- a book exploring how we've allowed tech to take over our lives, and how we can claim our time back.

Tech removed the boundaries between our offices and homes - work can now be done almost anywhere and at any time. In some instances, it has been truly beneficial, and we love to be able to work flexibly.

In other cases, it's overwhelming. While tech was meant to make our lives easier and our working days shorter, in reality it has seriously lengthened the work day. About 47% office workers in the US say tech increased their working hours, according to Pew Research Center. And the 2015 Workplace Flexibility Study found that one in three employees feel they are expected to be reachable via phone or email after office hours.

Even if a company isn't forcing us to stay connected all the time, we often choose to do so ourselves, because we have no more clear boundaries as to where work finishes and our private life starts. 70% of employees check their emails straight away, but only 30% say it's the expectation from their colleagues, or boss (LSE).

Life with no boundaries

In non-digital times, your work was finished when you physically moved from the office, or any other workplace, to your home. Space separated your work from your private life. Technology removed not only the physical border (you can continue working from home); but also temporal (specific working time) and psychological (thinking about work-related issues out of working hours).

Finishing the work is now something that you need to ask a permission for. Most people at your work and your clients by default expect you to be available if not for a full-time job, then at least to answer their inquiries at any moment. This lack of boundaries can be damaging for mental health and productivity.

Keeping healthy boundaries is extremely important, because we tend to get recharged and gain energy at home (provided that our home offers us a supportive environment), and spend our energy at work. When we don't have boundaries in place, we end up having very little to no time to restore ourselves. A research by the Liuba Belkin from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, William Becker of Virginia Tech and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University found that mere expectation of work-related emails at home was causing emotional exhaustion and stress. “Modern workplace technologies may be hurting the very employees those technologies were designed to help”, the researchers say.

Three types of boundaries

Depending on their industry and background, people choose one of three approaches to keeping their borders in an age of digital distractions, according to research by Andrew Thatcher and Andrew White.

Border expanders simply don't see a border, and keep on going no matter what. They often blur the border between work and life out of the need of career advancement. Predominantly border expanders are people in client-facing roles. It can be an investment banker who goes on a date and keeps checking his messages, then leaving earlier because he needs to go back to work. It's a busy lawyer who ignores her kids and goes to the office on a Sunday because she needs to address some questions the client raised at 11pm the previous night.

There's no such thing as no-working time for border expanders, work can come in any minute and it needs to be addressed. These are people, whose fingers are glued to their phones (usually more than one), and who can never be convinced to let go of the device.

Border adapters evaluate, whether the message is urgent or not by pre-screening them and watching notifications. These are the most grateful audience of wearables. They change their acting scenario depending on the screening result. They will answer the phone depending on who's calling. They will check their emails and see which of them require an urgent answer, and will answer those, and ignore the rest.

Border enforcers are people who have established for themselves really rigid boundaries. Their work finishes when they've left the office, and they aren't taking calls or messages. They may even prefer not to have any kind of phone to keep work at work. They are likely to have had burn-outs before and learned to keep their boundaries the hard way. Quite a few of them probably changed their jobs at least once or several times, looking for a company culture that allows them not to be on the digital leash all the time.

What can companies do?

All three types of behaviour can co-exist within one type of organization or family, although the corporate culture will determine one predominant type of behaviour. Usually this culture is influenced by the behaviour of senior management: if they expect others to read emails outside of the working hours, or do so themselves, people will be striving to do the same. Border enforcers will feel very uncomfortable in such an environment.

While companies often try to choose one of the ways to establish boundaries, this is not the best way. “One-fit all approach doesn't work in this situation, because it takes away the whole benefit of flexible working, says Marta Cecchinato from UCL, who researches online behaviour”.

A much better way is to offer some corporate standards as to what kind of behaviour is rewarded, and what is not. For example, make it clear that people get assessed based on how they perform, and not on how fast they reply to emails if they are not part of clients services. Better yet is to have an opt-in policy that allows people to disconnect and connect when they need to. However, it needs to have a serious buy-in from senior management. “Neither those who want to be in the office for 12 hours, or those who want to unplug and do part of their work offline, should be criticized by colleagues”, says Cecchinato.

This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina's new book Homo Distractus: Fight For Your Choices and Freedom in The Digital Age. You can pre-order the book here.

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