Technology has reduced the buffer or down time that used to happen naturally throughout the day, according to author Edward Tenner, who wrote Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. The minutes it took to walk somewhere to access information, or to go through a filing system were moments when people didn’t have to be “on” – time they could go through specific tasks without having to focus too much.
“So it’s as the Red Queen said in Through the Looking-Glass: ‘It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place,’” Tenner said.
But how does an organisation monitor and control its employees' use of technology in and out of the workplace? Volkswagen is trying a blunt tool by deactivating some workers’ e-mail accounts once their shifts are over, but others are looking for a complete culture shift.
BMW is introducing new rules to foster a management culture that “values the limits of work hours and reachability". While the company isn’t going into details until it’s been rolled out to employees, it’s indicative of some organisational efforts to discourage the non-stop work trend.
Some companies have resorted to more extreme measures. New York startup Quirky has instituted a “blackout” week once a quarter during which no one except customer service representatives are allowed to work, lest employees be tempted to check e-mail.
“We all dropped pencils together,” said CEO Ben Kaufman, who figured he could bring the idea of reinvention to his own company. “People were getting burned out. They needed to see other things besides their desk.”
And having the message come right from the top was important for Shirin Majid, the company’s 39-year-old head of digital marketing, who laments not having enough time to spend with her husband and nine-month-old daughter, Ella. In 17 years of public relations work, she has yet to take a vacation devoid of that dreaded phone call from the office.
But not last week. No one could call from the office – since no one was at the office.
“If you know that your boss is checked out, you’re going to relax a bit and not worry that you’re going to get an e-mail,” she said. “You can just have a nap.”
From integrated systems and automated payroll to mobile devices and employees able to work from anywhere, technology has changed how we work and where we work. In many ways this has been a good thing for business, but there have been costs too.