Welcome To The Online Office

The rise of remote working demands new discipline

Thanks to connectivity, we can access information at almost any given time. We can communicate with friends and family almost instantly. Another upshot of greater connectivity is that we aren’t just talking to our loved ones… We’re also talking to our colleagues and our clients.

In a vastly digital world, it’s possible to work from anywhere at any time. In many respects, this is a good thing, as it allows employees far greater freedom and flexibility. A potential downside, especially when employees are not so good at managing their time, is a danger that today’s working world never shuts down. But what does this mean for productivity, professions, and personal wellbeing? Has digitalisation had a negative or positive effect on our work life balance?

Not chained to the desk

Believe it or not, this article was written on a midmorning train journey. Enabled by mass connectivity, portable personal devices and increasing automation, more and more people are using their ‘free time’ to work. Last year, the University of the West of England carried out a study of 5,000 commuters. 54 per cent of respondents used the train’s WiFi to compose work emails while others used their own data allowances to do the same thing. Ultimately, more than half of the surveyed commuters chose to spend their journeys in the online office. This can be an advantageous use of travel time – provided it is factored in to working hours. It’s not just emails that are taking up what could otherwise be leisure time, and nor is it confined to commuters.

Platforms like Slack have drawn colleagues closer together in always accessible professional spaces. It takes better management and etiquette from all involved to make sure that the advantages outweigh any potential downsides. Even if an employee is half way across the globe, their boss can get hold of them – and vice versa. This is indicative of the changing nature of work and it is important to state clearly to colleagues when it is and isn’t acceptable to be contacted. The onus is on both the employer to set expectation and the employee to use ‘out of office’ and other statuses in platforms such as Slack in order to indicate when they are or aren’t working.

If ill managed, having the tools to work constantly could have devastating consequences for family dynamics and the quality of social interactions. Eventually, the loss of social interactions and leisure hours will affect the ability of workers to function at their best.

Personalising professions

Despite the many benefits of freedom to work in different locations and flexibility to travel on a whim, digitalisation means that employees are in danger of working more than their expected hours. This means that tracking and monitoring their own time is more important than ever. Equally, it can be harder for employers to track work progress, although many systems exist to minimise this. Answering emails on the train or working outside of regular office hours at home comes with the territory for a freelancer, but it has become part of regular nine to five jobs too.

Businesses are faced with redefining staff expectations. Should the nine to five be replaced by flexible hours, without the need to be tied to a desk? Arguably it depends on the job and also on the employee themselves – in other words, personalisation has come to the world of work. Soon, managers may have to understand who they employ on a personal level and form contracts on that basis. For some, a strict office role would kill productivity and stifle creativity. For others, the structure of defined hours and a professional environment are necessary.

Making the most of the individual

Any business that doesn’t know how to get the best out of their employees is missing an opportunity. Forcing workers to sit at desks may not always be the answer, just as working remotely doesn’t always suit everyone. This necessitates a redefinition of expectations, beginning with the development of a closer relationship between employers and employees. Another option which is gaining momentum (particularly in agile startups) is to completely rethink corporate hierarchies. This helps to negate any resentment that workers may feel for superiors when putting in extra hours by shifting the responsibility onto the individual. Traditional nine to five roles may still be relevant to jobs that are physical by necessity, e.g., construction and mechanical roles, but many aspects of those jobs have been augmented by digitalisation.

Bringing work out of the office and into the digital sphere means that many of us can work from anywhere. The environmental and energy saving impact of this is a huge consideration. The issue is that society is outgrowing aribitrary working patterns. Instead of creating disparity between expectations and reality, the world of work should complement societal evolution. Focusing on personalisation for the individual should enable greater fulfilment for the worker and more productivity for the business.

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