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What is “always-on” culture and how does it impact work?

Ring Central Blog

Written by Andy Cheng

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“Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’.” It may seem hard to believe now but that old Dolly Parton song, 9 to 5, actually reflects how work life used to be. But the days of work being confined to so-called business hours are long gone. 

First, the concept was dealt a blow by the proliferation of smartphones. Then the pandemic erased the lines between the office and home even further. So if it seems like work never really stops anymore … well, you’re not wrong.

 

What is ‘always-on’ culture?

We’ve all been there. It’s after dinner and you’re about to binge watch TV on the couch when you get a message from your boss: “Can you fix this?” Since it seems like a quick ask and you’d rather not have to deal with it first thing tomorrow, or keep your boss waiting, you open your laptop only to discover that the task isn’t quite as quick or as simple as you thought.  Several hours later, the job is done but it’s taken up most of the time you have to unwind and you’re feeling burnt out.

Welcome to “always-on” work culture, in which you are always on the clock.

Though employees may technically be able to sign off at normal hours, the problem with an always-on culture is that work never really stops. Even worse, it’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by every ping. First your coworker or manager sends you a question or quick task. Then the notification on your phone sets you in action. They respond to your response, or send feedback. It goes on all night.

And the problem has gotten even worse over the last year. The average employee working remotely during the pandemic clocks an extra 2.5 hours of work per day, research has found

But before we’d ever heard of COVID, the democratization of technology had already begun fueling the rise of “always-on” workplace culture. After workers became able to check email from anywhere on their Blackberries—and even more so as mobile work capabilities progressed and surged from there—it became the norm for many to respond to a quick email, polish up a PowerPoint presentation or review a report, or perform countless other tasks at all hours of the day. 

As work hours increase, so does burnout

Those extra hours may seem like a boon for productivity—even if they do come at the expense of one’s personal life. But the truth is, when you have an always-on culture, businesses and employees both suffer. 

Three in four workers say they’ve experienced burnout at work, while 40% say they felt especially burnt out during the pandemic, at a time when many were working after-hours more than ever before. When burnout occurs, productivity, employee engagement and even health can plummet

This means that always-on culture is a business risk—as well as a risk to employee wellbeing—that must be addressed. Here are four tactics for reducing burnout and managing always-on culture. 

1. Set clear expectations

If you don’t want employees to work at all hours, it’s important to say so. Setting formal and informal guidelines—both at the team and company level—can help to reinforce the importance of downtime and reduce any unintended pressure to respond to work matters after hours. 

Though blanket bans on after-hours emails may, in fact, do more harm than good, communicating expectations around urgent and non-urgent matters (and defining what constitutes each!) provide clarity, and gives workers a great control sense of control over their personal time. 

2. Set an example

Of course, telling employees they don’t need to feel bad about logging off at the end of the day is only effective if they truly believe the company supports work-life balance. 

But if managers say one thing and do another, it sends a message that any efforts to protect personal time are in name only. Set an example by encouraging managers to log off too—and if they send non-urgent correspondence at night, to either set email to send automatically when work reopens or to specify that an immediate response is not expected.

3. Encourage health and wellness

Businesses can help to reduce burnout by supporting employees with tools for better health and wellness. Access to mental health services, physical activity and self-care programs can help to prevent or reduce stress as well as its consequences. Some companies even incentivize health and wellness practices: Aetna pays workers $25 for every 20 nights in which they get seven hours of sleep, up to $300 annually. 

4. Leverage your communication tools

Using effective communication solutions can help workers to get more out of their working hours—and also protect their personal time. For example, we know the average employee wastes about an hour each day switching between apps. That lost time can make it harder to get more done during business hours, forcing work to bleed into the off hours. 

Using a platform such as RingCentral, which streamlines communication and helps workers get more done thanks to integrations with other business apps, can help people get more done during the day so they can truly shut down later on. And when it’s time to shut down, encouraging employees to set their status to “Do not disturb” prevents unwanted interruptions.

Happier, more productive workplaces

It may be counterintuitive but working at all hours doesn’t mean more work gets done. Not only does always-on culture not drive productivity, it can actually erode business health by contributing to employee stress and burnout. 

For happier, more productive employees, it’s important to set and honor boundaries that protect personal time. After all, when workers have enough time for their hobbies, families, and to nurture their health, it’s a win for everyone. 

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