The Cost of Remote Work in a Technology-Centered World
Simultaneously an invaluable tool and a hindrance to our day-to-day lives, technology has opened the door to remote work, staying in touch with friends and family with ease—and constantly checking our messages.
During the pandemic, technology provided a lifeline. Zoom, Google Meet, Discord and other chat services allowed families and friends to communicate across long and prolonged distances and for school and work to continue. Virtual events also saw a rise in popularity, as they allowed audiences to attend without paying for travel or worrying about exposure to COVID-19. It wasn’t the ideal solution—and many would say it still isn’t—but it allowed for life to continue with some semblance of normalcy.
Although instant communication was already a facet of life, it is not a stretch to imagine that the pandemic only exacerbated the effects, especially for remote workers. The loss of a formal workday means the removal of stringent work hours, and though working after-hours is no recent change, it has become more expected of employees—particularly when it comes to responding to messages.
A 2018 article published in the Labor Law Journal looked at the legal implications of working after-hours, discussing how smartphones give employees easy access to their work emails at all hours of the day.
“For many employees, the workday does not end when they leave the office,” the authors wrote. The same advances in technology that allow immediate communication also create the expectation of immediate response. Although friends often understand gaps in communication, when receiving messages from employers and managers, even after hours, it’s often more difficult to stay away from the phone.
The breakdown of work-life balance
Although working from home has created more flexibility, and thus more free time, for employees, the Labor Law Journal article argues that it has also “blurred the lines of when it is acceptable to expect, send and react to work communications after the workday has ended.” The pandemic has likely only exacerbated this effect, with the rise of remote work and the slow decrease of stringent work hours making it all the more acceptable, or at least expected, that employers will reach out at any time of day. Additionally, a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looked at the relationship between overusing technology and the mental detachment from work as the result of overwork, arguing that “work is intensifying more and more as a result of technologies in day-to-day work. Consequently, this also leads to a higher level of speed required, with more tasks to cover and less response time available.” Although technology has achieved the goal of expediting work processes, it’s failed to reduce the time people are expected to spend at work—in fact, it’s potentially the main reason that expectation has only grown. If the work is quicker and easier to complete with the aid of technology, then more is added to fill out the workday, regardless of the effect on employees.
All of this, of course, makes it difficult for employees to maintain a work-life balance. A 2019 article published in the Journal of Applied Business and Economics looked at work boundaries and both the ability and willingness of employees to disconnect from technology. The authors argued that the “‘always-on’ work culture also creates numerous problems for organizations stemming primarily from the fact that it denies workers a sense of individual efficacy and autonomy by putting them on a permanent state of reactive alert.” Even outside of business hours, employees must be ready to be assigned more work, and be expected to complete it promptly. Depending on the employer, they may fear repercussions for stepping away from work after-hours and not completing tasks. Employees who want to impress their employer as an “ideal” proactive worker continue to set aside life for work.
A 2020 study conducted in Australia found that “21% of respondents had supervisors who expected them to respond to work-related texts, calls and emails after work, 55% sent digital communication about work in the evenings to colleagues and 30% sent work-related digital communication to colleagues on the weekends, while expecting a same-day response.” The conclusion drawn from the research was twofold: There is a diminishing boundary between the work and home spheres, and the increased time spent involved with work creates mental and physical strain on employees as they wait for correspondence and cannot disengage fully. In the age of remote work, the division between home and work becomes even more nonexistent—even if work is being completed at an office, individuals can respond to messages and attend virtual meetings without physically leaving the home sphere. Although beneficial, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study authors argue that “the intensive use of information and communication technologies as management tools dilutes the boundaries between physical spaces and work responsibilities. Furthermore, this can lead to extended working hours, making it more difficult for people to psychologically detach themselves from their work during break times.”
The mental and physical effects of overwork
The ability to detach oneself from work not just physically but also mentally is necessary in order to recover and relax after the workday. Yet, as individuals become more tied to their work, even after hours, that ability becomes lessened or even nonexistent.
This can affect relationships as well—a constant focus on work means less attention devoted to friends, family and significant others. In families, especially those with children, it means difficulty in dividing tasks and spending time together. Social and familial obligations are left by the wayside in order to make room for work demands. Although this may allay anxiety for those work expectations, it likely also promotes strain on relationships and mental health.
An often-cited work-life balance article penned by John Pencavel in 2015 looks at an investigation made during WWI to draw the conclusion that increased hours do not necessarily create increased output. Instead, Pencavel states that “employees at work for a long time experience fatigue or stress that not only reduces his or her productivity but also increases the probability of errors, accidents and sickness that impose costs on the employer.” Although long hours are common in many professions—hospital staff are often cited as an example of working overtime, and teachers are often expected to complete hours of planning and grading outside of work—often without the benefit of extra pay, it doesn’t mean that individuals are more productive the longer they work. In fact, the longer the period of work is, the greater the probability the employee will make an error.
All of this, of course, is potentially fixable. Employers often make the decision to encourage constant communication either by demand, requests to utilize a company app for communication or even by providing technology to employees. “The inevitable consequence of this decision is that regular workdays are extended, and people remain tied to the world of work beyond their base schedule unless corrective measures are taken,” the authors of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study say. Although it is a stretch to imagine most, if any, employers would outright ban communication after hours, it would be possible to request that communication be put on hold after work save for urgent situations. With fear of retribution as a defining factor in work hours, employers would be the only ones who could allay that fear.
Additionally, right to disconnect laws could become the norm, making it legal for employees to ignore notifications without fearing repercussions, even if their employer demands an immediate answer.
The boundary between work and life is an important one. It will likely never be impermeable, particularly as work hours become more flexible and the times designated to work and to social activities are up to the employee, but there can be a boundary nonetheless. Phones don’t have to be permanently turned off, notifications don’t have to be placed on silent, but a line has to be drawn in order to allow for personal health and well-being to be made a priority.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos nadyabadya/shutterstock.com
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