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Coping with "always on" culture in today's work environment

Finding work-life balance in an “always on” culture

The “always on” culture was born long before COVID-19 blurred the lines of home and office. Lightweight laptops, handheld smartphones and even wearable tech like watches and headsets are our reality; work is possible anywhere and anytime. With technology more mobile than ever, communication has followed suit. But recently, with many employees working from home, the desire for work-life balance has shifted from a nicety to a necessity for many employees.

Digital connectivity is at an all-time high, and that does have many advantages. Companies could quickly adjust, respond and dodge the disruptions caused by COVID-19, for example. But an unanticipated side effect of hyper-communication is pressure, with workers feeling obligated to be just as responsive as the automated technology they’re using. Whether driven by workaholism, desire for promotion or fear of job loss, recent data shows remote workers are 43% more likely than on-site workers to clock more than 40 hours a week.

While this level of increased engagement may seem like a potential benefit to employers, countless studies show that an “always on” culture can negatively impact productivity, creativity, mental health and employee retention.

So how can companies effectively manage a remote workforce while encouraging healthy boundaries with technology? Here are a few “switching off” strategies to help:

Acknowledge working conditions are different.

A great first step in setting healthy boundaries with technology is to openly acknowledge work conditions have changed. Whether you’re managing a predominantly remote workforce or a small team of in-person workers, it may be time to release the notion of a “9-5” work day and discuss what that means for your company.

Set the stage for an open dialogue with employees about what effective communication looks like and be willing to let go of old methods. For example, is the weekly Monday morning staff meeting still relevant? Is it time to implement a project management system in lieu of status calls? Build trust with your team by encouraging autonomy and soliciting feedback on what kind of work schedule is best for them.

Provide clear expectations for communication.

One smart way to alleviate stress around digital communication is to provide clear guidelines and expectations ahead of time. Revisit your company’s communication policy. Don’t have one? Now is an ideal time to create one. Include criteria such as preferred channels for specific circumstances (text or email?), required response times (close of business or 24 hours?) and meeting protocols (virtual or in person?).

As much as possible, avoid last minute messages and meetings by establishing routine communication patterns. Providing this structure in advance will give employees clarity on when and how they can “switch off” from devices without missing an important message, meeting or deadline. When your team knows what’s expected, they can feel empowered to set the kinds of boundaries that work for them and their families.

Model awareness, accountability and boundaries for your team.

Especially in times of uncertainty, we look to those around us. Take the opportunity to show your employees how to set boundaries. It’s tempting to dash off a quick email right before bed, or chime in on messaging software late at night! But when you show that you’re “always on”, your team may feel pressure to do the same. When you’re working late nights or early mornings, consider saving emails as drafts and sending the next day. Even if you’re not a senior-level leader, those around you may take notice and feel permission to take a break because they’ve seen you take one first.

Pay attention to what drains or charges your “battery”.

Just as digital devices have a limited battery supply, individuals need to regularly “switch off” to recharge their minds and bodies. While this can be as simple as taking a lunch break, going for a walk or performing a simple meditation exercise, it’s important to recognize there is no one-size-fits-all approach. While some employees may be energized by a remote work environment, others may feel depleted without regular employee interaction. Encourage your employees to discover what works for them and offer the flexibility to incorporate those kinds of activities into their work day.

As the landscape of home and office continues to evolve, incorporating these simple strategies can help your team successfully navigate the “always on” culture, while making significant strides towards work-life balance.

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