Thanks to the plethora of technologies available to them, today’s workers are more mobile than ever. Where they would’ve once been confined to going into their office and spending time at a desk, they can now work from pretty much anywhere in the world, even when they’re traveling. It sounds great in theory, but has this increased mobility actually made for happier workers?
It’s an important question, especially when you consider that IDC research expects some 650 million mobile devices will be used in the workplace on corporate networks by 2017. Small wonder then that a large portion of IT executives feel that “mobility will impact their business as much as or more so than the web did” in the late 90s.
While that increased mobility does allow workers a greater degree of freedom, it also means that it can more easily intrude on other aspects of their lives. Think about it; how often have you answered an email while out to dinner with friends, or spent your weekend poring over spreadsheets because you know you’re in for a busy week?
There’s no doubt that there are merits to both sides of the argument. Ultimately though, the way companies deal with mobility may have a bigger impact than the technology itself.
The trouble with tech
That’s not to say that technology is blameless. Our devices are designed to grab our attention, and are incredibly effective at doing so. A 2015 study, for instance, found that the average American checks their phone 85 times a day. While that comes with its own set of issues (heavy smartphone use has been linked with depression and anxiety – http://www.techtimes.com/articles/138483/20160305/heavy-smartphone-use-can-lead-to-depression-anxiety.htm), they’re only compounded if people receive work emails on their phones outside of office hours.
A number of studies have shown that constant worrying about after-hours emails can lead to exhaustion and burnout.
The culprit isn’t so much the emails themselves, but workers feeling like they’re expected to reply immediately. This is especially true if the email comes from their supervisor (who may well be under pressure from their own supervisor).
Thing is, email isn’t the only culprit. Messaging tools like Slack, designed to cut down on email traffic, can actually make the need to reply feel that much more urgent. That’s to say nothing of the people managing the company’s social media presence, who must be alert to complaints at all hours of the day.
A better way
That’s not to say we should give up on mobility though. There are enormous benefits to being able to spend a long airport wait doing something productive, for instance. Giving the parent of a sick child the freedom to work from home meanwhile, is much more likely to improve their perception of your company than forcing them to take a day off.
Recent studies have also shown that workers across all age groups desire greater workplace flexibility. In other words, they want the freedom to work at any time from any location.
Without the technologies currently available to the average worker – from smartphones to affordable high speed home internet — those desires wouldn’t be at all feasible.
Thing is, a lot of companies don’t understand what that actually means. It does not mean expecting them to put a full day in at the office and then answer emails and messages after hours or on the weekend. A company might get away with that for a little while, but the physiology of the human body means that people working under those conditions will inevitably be less and less productive.
Instead it means giving them exactly what they want: flexibility and freedom. Sure there might be times when everyone needs to be at the office, but does it have to be every day? If you track someone by work done and projects completed, are they not more likely to produce great work than if their commitment is measured by how many hours they spend at their desk or how quickly they respond to an after-hours email?
Ultimately, it comes down to culture, with management playing a particularly important role. As we’ve previously noted, management sets the tone when it comes things like working hours and email.
It stands to reason then that if you’re in management and you’re hoping mobility will make your employees happy, it’s down to you to take the lead. In other words, use the technologies that enable mobility in a way that doesn’t just make you happy, but would make you happy if you were an ordinary employee.