Few in the workplace would deny that we live in the era of constant availability. The digital revolution has made it possible to stay connected to work 24/7. Fears of economic competition heighten the expectation that workers be available to their companies after work, before work, and on the weekends.
It's well documented that people in the U.S. are working longer hours. A study conducted by researchers from Boston University and Harvard Business School, for example, found that average working hours had risen 9% in the U.S. since 1979. Among workers in the top income brackets, however, they had risen even more. Top earners work nearly 10% more than workers whose pay falls in the average range, at 2,015 hours per year.
The hours are one issue, but perhaps even more pervasive are perceptions throughout U.S. workplaces that organizational behavior elicits and rewards 24/7 availability. Indeed, a study in the Harvard Business Review noted that employees' perception that they would be penalized for attempting to cut back their hours is firmly rooted in reality. Men wanting parental leave, for example, were counseled that it would be seen as a reduced commitment to the job - and impact their reputations and future assignments accordingly.
Women who care for children and seek lesser hours are penalized for not being available 24/7 as well. Indeed, the researchers cite the culture of constant availability as a system that can foster gender inequality.
The HBR researchers found that employees coped with 24/7 demands in several different ways. One employee strategy was simply to give in and be available, although many employees felt constant availability had a detrimental effect on their personal and family life.
The second strategy was to make adjustments that allow employees to work less, but which are not visible to upper management. These strategies included cultivated local clients, so that business trips took up less time than international or cross-country ones. They also included telecommuting.
The third strategy was to reveal an employee's outside-of-work activities, such as coaching Little League or singing in a community chorus. Employees did feel a danger of being penalized, however.
The culture of constant availability can lead to employee frustration and lack of engagement. It can also hamper the progress of employees who have much to offer, but are unwilling and unable to be available 24/7.
Because of these issues, business leadership may benefit from three strategies to disincentivize the 24/7 workplace.
The first is to let employees share their life outside of work. Community service or family life can strengthen workplace ties, not detract from them.
The second is exercising leadership skills to value product excellence over time spent in a workplace. Systems need to be in place that measure and reward the merit of a product rather than time spent on a clock.
Finally, business leaders should build in methods to demarcate and protect personal time from work time. Mandating that vacation time or personal days need to be used annually can be a way of instilling this message.