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This article was written by Svenja Schlachter from the University of Surrey, Dr Almuth McDowall from Birkbeck, University of London and Professor Ilke Inceoglu, from the University of Exeter Business School.
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have made remarkable jumps in the last few decades, enabling us to carry powerful palm-sized computers with a virtually constant connectivity to the internet with us wherever we go.
Although this has an abundance of benefits for us, it also means that we can take work with us wherever we go: sneaky peaks at our work e-mails during family dinner, work calls while on holiday or working on last week’s backlog at the weekend.
Being always switched on and available for work is increasingly criticised for preventing employees from unwinding and recharging their energy during their non-work time.
In well-intended attempts to support their employees’ work-life balance, some employers have taken action against the “always on” culture, for example by switching off e-mail servers outside of regular office hours so employees are not able to receive or send work e-mails during these periods.
Additionally, in some countries such as France and Italy, employees have been granted the “right to disconnect” per labour legislation.
But such measures appear to be in their early stages and have not been implemented in many organisations or countries: a study by Almuth McDowall and Gail Kinman found that over 50% of organisations currently do not provide a guiding policy or training in relation to managing modern ICTs during non-work time.
Although such policies and training are undisputedly in demand to address the fundamental changes to the way we work in the last decades, it is imperative that they are based on evidence-based guidance and should take into account why employees choose to be use ICTs to work during their non-work time.
What does evidence say?
In order to establish this highly needed evidence base and hence provide evidence-based guidance regarding using ICTs for work during non-work time, we, a research collaboration from the University of Surrey, Birkbeck, University of London and University of Exeter, conducted a comprehensive review of existing studies on using ICTs to work during non-work time.
Overall, we scrutinised 56 studies in order to gain a more balanced and complete account of this way of working.
We found that in many studies employees reported negative outcomes of being available for work in terms of extended work time, conflicts between work and private life, and the inability to mentally detach from work, which is essential to recover effectively from work and recharge our batteries.
Although some studies reported positive effects of being available in terms of reduced stress induced by backlog and fear of missing out on important work communications, most studies report negative outcomes for employee wellbeing, in particular as knock-on effects of the aforementioned negative consequences of work-related ICT use during non-work time.
So why do employees work outside of regular work hours?
The dark side
When looking into reasons why employees use ICTs for work during their non-work time, we identified several factors discussed in the reviewed studies.
For many employees, perceived availability expectations of others are the main reason to be available outside of regular work hours. Such expectations can be rooted in certain organisational cultures (e.g., strong customer focus offering 24/7 access to services), or be conveyed by managers and colleagues.
In particular, vague expectations leaving employees to guess what is actually expected of them seem to fuel pressures to be available. But we should also acknowledge that our compliance with such expectations can reinforce them: If we have responded to work e-mails during our holidays in the past, colleagues might assume that we are fine with being contacted in the future.
Another, yet related factor to choose to work during non-work time is that many employees are eager to show their dedication by being available 24/7 and quick to respond whenever from wherever. Using ICTs during non-work time has been found in previous studies to be considered a way to show commitment and “going the extra mile”.
Although the majority of employees appear to engage in working outside of regular work hours under protest relenting to external pressures, there is a flipside to consider: some employees indeed prefer to work during such times in order to arrange their work and non-work time in line with their individual needs.
They see ICTs as tools that enable flexibility and control over their workload, thus facilitating a better work-life balance. Cutting such employees off the possibility to work flexibly, for instance by disabling e-mail servers, can negate the benefits that modern ICTs can have.
So what can we learn from these findings?
The findings from our review clearly show that organisational or governmental one-size-fits-all solutions are unlikely to be an answer to how to manage modern ICTs effectively in the work context.
We need a more balanced and evidence-based approach to the issue which acknowledges individual and organisational needs and requirements.
Employers and employees need to work together to understand these needs and requirements and aim to find an approach that enables flexibility, but pledges support for employees’ work-life balance and recovery from work. The fact is that we all need downtime, as we work more effectively and are healthier when we have it.
Our top tips
Start an open discussion about availability expectations with your work team and manager: Spell out what expectations are reasonable and effective and agree on a code of conduct. You might be surprised that your colleagues and manager do not actually expect you to respond to their late-night e-mails.
If you personally prefer working flexibly, always consider the potential impact of sending out an e-mail outside of work hours and that others might not feel the same about working flexibly. So does the late-night e-mail really need sending before the following workday? Also ensure that you have proper downtime. Working flexibly should not equal working more.
If you are a manager, explicitly state your expectations and practice what you preach. If you send a late-night e-mail, you might convey certain expectations, even unintentionally. Always appreciate and convey that you and your employees need some time to relax and recharge your batteries.
If you would like to read our review in detail, it is freely accessible in the International Journal of Management Reviews: Voluntary work-related technology use during non-work time: A narrative synthesis of empirical research and research agenda