Forget Dolly Parton and her nine to five work day; in today’s connected world, hours like that are fast going the way of the Dodo. Technology has mobilised the work force, and, as our phones have evolved from a device for simply making and responding to calls to one combining phone, diary, laptop, TV, wallet, clock and much more, they’ve become an essential item at every level of the business hierarchy.
“Tools like smartphones and tablets allow you to be available not just anytime, but anywhere, both here in New Zealand and when you’re overseas. There’s no doubt this will become more pronounced as technology like 4G then 5G is fully deployed in the rural regions of the country,” says Tim Miles, CEO of Spark Digital.
“When you combine faster and faster mobile networks and cloud capability with the immense computing power loaded into a tablet or smartphone, your work and your personal life can be converged and delivered right into your hands.”
But is it a case of too much of a good thing? Is 24/7 the new 9am to 5pm or is it time to focus on drawing a firm line between staying in touch and being a round-the-clock slave to a mobile device? Indeed, is it the technology that’s at fault or poor management practices?
Already a growing number of multi-nationals have created email policies around unplugging; last year an agreement between some French unions and employers saw an ‘obligation to disconnect’ put in place to ensure workers don’t burn out. Germany may take it one step further, with an anti-stress law banning after-hours communication from employers to workers, reportedly under consideration.
“At Spark Digital we believe work is something you do, not a place you go and technology provides this possibility to both the employer and the employees,” says Miles. “We provide a flexible working policy that allows staff to use technology to work where and when they need to. That same technology allows them to seamlessly work from any one of our 14 offices around the country.” If you’ve left the office early and choose to stay in touch you can, he says. “That’s why these devices are built with an off/on switch. It’s up to the individual how he or she accesses and uses the technology.”
“You don’t need to be tethered to the phone to be a successful leader,” says Kelvin Hussey. GM, CallPlus Business Solutions. “Real success comes from immersing yourself in the business then taking a step back when you need to.”
CallPlus doesn’t have specific policies in place to control the overuse of technology he says, “Our people are tech savvy and usually on multiple devices, however we actively encourage everyone to strike a balance between online and offline time. It’s really down to individuals and their managers to decide how the team works.” Unless he’s in a meeting he prefers to answer his phone immediately. “In my world phone calls tend to be more urgent than emails.”
Create rules for yourself to make sure you get the time you need to concentrate on working on the business rather than in it, he says. “Your phone is a lot of things but it can’t take the place of your family or your friends. It’s always a choice who you put first.”
People who are in direct contact with you need to know when you’re available and when you’re not, he says. “We’re only as available as we allow ourselves to be.”
However, as GM of a 24/7 network there’s always the possibility of a late night incident Hussey will need to know about. “It comes with the territory and is backed by process. In these kinds of situations I know who I will hear from, and how.”
At Vodafone they’ve recognised the challenges posed in creating a balance when the lines between work life and personal life blur, says Craig Jones, business manager to CEO Russell Stanners. “It comes down to two things; the organisational culture and leadership. And it’s really important the two go hand-in-hand.”
Vodafone’s ‘Better Ways of Working’ programme defines the company’s culture, ensuring the organisation is a mobility enabled enterprise enabling a workforce that is connected without being artificially constrained by location or hours of work. “Employees are given the tools to enable them to work anywhere and encouraged to work in a way that suits them best, with a focus on delivery of outcomes,” says Jones.
“The amazing thing about remote working is that it opens up opportunities to be more productive in places you’ve never been before.”
The success of the programme comes down to managers working with their team to set goals and KPIs so that people are absolutely clear about what they need to do to deliver. “We then support those teams to achieve that in the environment that suits them best.
“My boss sets me very clear goals and in turn I live that philosophy through the leadership of my team. We have the flexibility to perform and deliver where we need to.”
That flexibility see Jones manage his work load remotely and in the office, clearing emails at home around 5.30am before leaving for the office where he gets “a heap of work done in the morning”, then heading to the gym for an hour and a half. “I’ll work with my team in the afternoon, go home early, and after dinner go through any emails and that’s me done for the day.”
Miles also starts the day de-cluttering his Inbox from home. “I check it regularly from my tablet every morning when I wake up, then re-check once I get to the office and throughout the day.” His phone is usually switched to silent during meetings and when he sleeps – “except in exceptional circumstances. One of the benefits of working for a New Zealand company is that we’re all in the same time zone!”
And while he’s quick to point out managing technology is completely personal and requires discipline, he admits to not always getting it right. “In my case I don’t always get the balance between staying available and switching off. I recall hiding a spare phone on a business trip to Spain because I knew my wife would confiscate mine the minute we had some spare time. She threatened to throw it out of our rental car – a timely reminder that family comes first.
“It’s important technology is managed effectively to ensure that its benefits aren’t outweighed by increased stress levels and the idea that you need to be always on. Both employers and employees have a responsibility to set some boundaries and actively dissuade this concept.
“I’ve learned that it’s usually down to individuals to set boundaries and make their availability clear. Mobile technology has definitely improved and enhanced our lives but there’s a lot to be said for it being turned off from time to time.
“Disconnect. Set limits. Stick to them. Make people wait. Live life. How we use technology is the key. Make it work for you, not the other way round.”