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How technology killed the work-life balance

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Picture credit: Flickr/Laura

This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book "Homo distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age”

Before the digital era, when a phone rang and we were busy or just didn’t feel like talking, we ignored it. Nowadays, if you refuse to connect, it is seen an act of rebellion. No privacy is left. Technology has not only removed the boundaries between work and private life, something political activists of the past arduously fought for decades, but also seriously lengthened the work day. In the US 47% office workers believe that tech has increased their working hours, and at least one in three employees feel they are expected to be reachable after office hours. When staying connected defines your career progress, employees willingly get on a “digital leash”. Connection is seen as a proxy of loyalty and productivity. Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer famously prohibited employees from working from home, when she discovered they had not been logging into the corporate email. Even with no formal pressure, we often willingly put this digital leash on ourselves. Early stage business owners, for example, are often proud of staying connected 24/7 and see this as a proof that they are controlling their business. But does being connected all the time really help our productivity and business? What research says It turns out, it doesn’t. Multiple research proves constant connection can actually damage the concentration, productivity and sometimes even health of employees and, consequently, the company bottom line. One of the top researchers of technology and humans Gloria Mark from the University of California at Irving has shown that people who do not check work email on a regular basis are less stressed, more productive and can focus longer on a single task. Similarly, when a Harvard Business School researchers Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter convinced a team of management consultants at BCG to unplug once a week to focus entirely on delivering a project, they became more productive, reported more open communication with colleagues and delivered a better product to the client. Curiously, the relationship between the client and the unplugged team of consultants not only didn’t suffer, but improved. Contrary to their expectations, the client didn’t mind the team to unplug as long as he knew, when consultants were available. Research also shows that an extended working day doesn’t make us better workers. From a study by John Pencavel from Stanford University we know that productivity falls after a 50-hour working week, and after the 55th hour putting in extra hours doesn't add anything. In other words, my may try to convince ourselves or our bosses that when we check emails at 10pm, we are being productive, but in reality, we are not. Lastly, we know that while technology increased our working time, instead of using it productively and creatively, we end up bridging the gap between various programs and moving information around (i.e. from email into a presentation). For instance, McKinsey estimates that an average office worker spends 28% of his work day just on managing emails. No one would call this a productive use of time. What your body says When we are constantly connected, are exposed to lots of diverse information, and switch between different tasks (something we do online all the time), we tend to get tired faster. Specifically, one part of our brain responsible for self-control and decision-making, pre-frontal cortex, gets overwhelmed. When this happens, we become more likely to make mistakes, take worse decisions, not manage well our emotional reactions, and tend to lose focus on the bigger picture. We also lose the ability to understand, what’s relevant to our work, and what’s not. In other words, with digital overwhelm we stop being professional. If we further force ourselves to stay connected, our brain opts in for the easiest “reward” – and so we might end up just checking email for hundred times per hour, as opposed to doing what will really make a difference. And as our stomach needs time to digest food, so our brain needs to process information we’ve been feeding into it. There is time to take information in, and time to digest it (this happens unconsciously). If we don’t stop staffing the brain with information, it won’t have time to digest. As a result, we’ll quickly get mentally obese – we’ll get a lazy brain that is not unable to concentrate, perform fast enough, and feeds itself mainly on junk food like cat pictures in social media. Lastly, longer working hours though are known to create unnecessary stress for the body, which can lead to health issues. For example, the UK employees who work the longest hours are also known for taking more health-related leaves than their European colleagues. What society says So why are we still expecting employees to stay constantly connected and reward this behaviour? Why do we assume that being connected is equal to being productive? There is a number of reasons. First, it’s just easier to do so. As Cal Newport explains in his bestselling book “Deep mind”, digital busyness has become a proxy of productivity, because knowledge workers don’t anymore have a clearly defined outcome of their work, and so it’s difficult to measure their productivity. If you are a builder, you know your work is finished, when you have built a house, and you know how many houses you can build in a given year. But how can a knowledge worker show he’s being? Being the first one to respond to emails is certainly one way to imitate productivity both in front of your boss or yourself. The second reason is that we have bought into a bright future of a constantly connected culture. We’ve been shown the shiny benefits of instant collaboration, real-time updates etc. Digital nomads with their laptops by the side of the swimming pool. And yes, these are great benefits. The problem is, connected culture comes with a price, and tech companies did not tell us about it. The price is our inability to concentrate and stay focused (we need large uninterrupted chunks of time to do deep meaningful work). The price is our body and brain being in a constant state of alert, trying to be on top of everything all the time, and perform at the same time. As with the Harvard experiment with BCG consultants, we just assume we need to be connected, even if there is no real need and it has no real impact on our relationships. It’s a matter of habit, and in many cases it has become a bad habit. Third, we end up staying connected all the time because of how tech products are designed. I have written a lot about it already, explaining how phones, apps and websites are designed to keep you endlessly browsing and scrolling, as opposed to finish your task and go – this is how online companies make money. Fourth, most managers simply don’t understand, how our brain works and where productivity and creativity come from. That’s not what they have studied. And while “digital skills” has become the new mantra of HR conferences, there is no understanding whatsoever of how these digital skills need to be combined with human skills – ability to stay focused, concentrated, creative, and get the most of your brain. What can we do It’s not all so gloom, and both businesses and entire states slowly start realizing the importance of not only connecting, but also disconnecting. Brazil demands that employees are compensated for checking emails out of the working hours, and the French law that prohibits to require employees to check emails after working hours acknowledges that ‘the blurring of the borders between private life and professional life<…> are risks associated with the usage of digital technology’. Virgin UK has introduced a 2-hour per week email ban for all senior management, Volkswagen does not allow sending or receiving emails after an employee’s shift has ended and Daimler, another car manufacturer, has an optional auto-delete email policy. All emails employees receive while on vacation gets deleted, and an auto response suggests to email back if something is very important, or contact their colleagues. While these attempts are certainly better than nothing, unfortunately, they are not enough. The problem is not the email, it’s just become a symbol of an “always on” culture. Prohibiting people from working flexibly is not a solution either (some parents, for example, might find it very beneficial to be able to skip afternoons, but work from home in the evening). The real challenge and need is to change the working culture and perception of what technology is good and not good for. Human brain is not a computer, and it cannot do various tasks simultaneously, or perform equally well throughout the day. It also needs time to digest information. Technology is not a holy grail, it is a tool. It can create a lot of opportunities, but only if used appropriately. What we need is less “digital skills”, and more “human skills” trainings - we need more understanding of how people actually become productive and creative, and how to get the most of our brains. If we acknowledge that human brain is nothing close to a computer, we may need to change the way we work. We’ll need to start respecting the time, when people need to be offline to do meaningful work, and plan our own work accordingly. We’ll need to become more organized, because we’ll constantly have to make a trade-off between speed and quality of communication and work. Companies will need to find a way to measure their employees’ productivity and loyalty without using their online visibility as a proxy. It will take some mental effort and as all changes will likely produce initial resistance. What we’ll get as a result though is a clearer, more productive and creative mind, better relationships with people around us – both coworkers and clients, and more free time to do things that are truly important. PS One thing you can do today yourself is to introduce a ritual of opening and closing your work day. It can be purely symbolic or even silly, like going around your table three times, or putting your laptop in a chest of drawers and closing it. What’s important is that you give your brain a clear signal: “I am done for the day”, and not go back to the device again until the next morning. LINKS (I purposefully don't insert hyperlinks at the text, because they make you distracted from reading)

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