This week, I heard a story on BBC News Hour (yes, even here in the Catskills), which brought up an issue with work that has gone on for decades in one form or another. The story was about the intrusion of job responsibilities into personal time, helped along by technology such as iPhones and of course email. The story pointed out that more people are getting pulled into responding to communications during off-hours, and that some employees, and employers, were starting to take a stand against it.
We’ve heard that sort of thing before. It has its roots in age-old workplace pressure to put in extra time, and it gathered steam with widespread telecommuting in the 1990s, before text messages but with email from anywhere well established. Since cubicle jobs seemingly did not require people to be in the office, the idea spread that they might as well save the commute and work from home. Those doing it swore that it improved their productivity, and for a few years telecommuting received almost totally positive business press.
After a while – a short time at some progressive companies and much longer at others – the bloom went off the work-from-home rose. Companies discovered that many were, in fact, doing poor work or no work when they telecommuted. It proved more valuable for people to maintain better contact with their peers by being physically present. Managers were faced with evidence that not all of their employees put in equal efforts, and some who did not accept that ended telecommuting privileges completely. The logical flaw in working from home, that people who had trouble getting their work done in settings designed to facilitate that did not become focused jammers when surrounded by their own personally chosen distractions, became exposed. When I worked in AT&T management throughout the 1990s, the company, not known then for responding quickly to change, got the worst of it, as the least disciplined and conscientious workers seemed to ask to telecommute the most. Some abuses I saw included being told by one person’s spouse at 2:00pm that the employee was taking a “late lunch,” another making sounds consistent with an aerobic workout at 9:45am, another telling me not to call them when they were working from home, and several refusing to alter their schedules when events clearly indicated they should be physically present. Some supervisors seemed to assign incoming work only to people in the office, and in general, telecommuters were treated as roughly midway between those onsite and those off for the day. As a result of similar experiences elsewhere, it has been a long time since commentary about working at home has been exclusively glowing – more representative is the recent Dilbert strip in which the title character almost succeeded in getting his boss to allow him to work from home with no deliverables, after which he said, to himself, that he fell just short of getting a year’s vacation.
So what does telecommuting, still around but generally much better judged, have to do with extra hours and the subject of the BBC piece? All three are about the boundaries of ordinary office-related jobs. In a way, the newest problem is the worst, as workers are now sensing expectations that they in effect should telecommute around the clock. What is wrong with all the off-hour contact?
First, it is inefficient. Studies have shown that for office jobs, work over 40 weekly hours has diminishing returns, even to the extent of those who put in 20 extra ones doing the equivalent of not 60 but 48. Second, transition time between tasks, for thinking work, can take as long as 20 to 30 minutes, and changing from personal task to job-related ones is no better. Third, new and more accessible communications channels have created a Parkinson’s Law-like situation. That rule states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion, and it is a serious problem and subject of many books and articles; when cell phones are always carried and text messages are available, people are known to be electronically accessible, which leads to non-urgent and unnecessary communications. Fourth, many employees, especially those with relatively little demanding their time outside of work, welcome the opportunity to look dedicated; the belts adorned with pagers and phones two decades ago have given way to conspicuous texting and talking at hours that might seem, to some, impressive.
What is happening here, though, is more akin to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. We then did not know how many hours a human being could put in at a factory, and those who managed those going from the likes of 3am to 10pm six or seven days a week found out it wasn’t that many as they had hoped. Now, the presence of modern wireless phones and the lack of physical exertion of cubicle work are fooling a lot into thinking people can be available for much more time than before. They cannot. When combined with the lack of jobs, making more office workers available, it would be beneficial if employers did consign round-the-clock contact to history, where most have already put unbridled telecommuting. Technology is a fine servant, but makes a very poor master – within the decade we will discover that again.