Skip to main content

By Marcus Beaver, UKI Country Leader at Alight Solutions

In a recent Tweet, one San Francisco-based venture capitalist said: “The best thing young people can do early in their careers is to work on the weekends.”

Understandably, it didn’t go down well with millennials and Gen Z.  But the view gives a much-needed insight on a pandemic trend effecting workers across all generations: that of an ‘always-on’ culture.

The pandemic left all office employees working remotely and it hasn’t made things easier. While the benefits are clear for staff working remotely, it doesn’t come without its pitfalls –

day-to-day working hours are increasing and working weekends is becoming more of a normality for some. The pressure is building and staff feel they need to constantly be online to perform well. But something needs to change.

Workdays are longer

One of the unintended consequences of the shift to home working has been a tendency for people to spend more time at their desks as workloads have increased. Recent research found the average working day for UK employees has increased by two hours – with the removal of the office’s physical perimeters, we’ve seen home workers take shorter lunch breaks, work through sickness, and generally feel the need to always be available as the boundaries between work and leisure time have blurred.

The circumstances of the past year normalised work-life overlap to some degree. For example, we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing family members and pets show up in the back of video calls. If you’re in the office, there’s a start and finish time which is generally adhered to unless there’s something urgent. However, the past year has seen the barriers between our work and personal lives diminish. This can have a real impact on the mental health and wellbeing of employees, and lead to increased rates of burnout among the workforce.

Setting boundaries

A study from the Royal Society for Public Health found almost a third (29%) of employees feel remote work has had a negative impact on their wellbeing, with over half (56%) finding it difficult to switch off.To combat this, Apple recently announced its iOS 15 update will include a feature to silence late-night emails from the office with ‘Focus Mode’.

While technology can play a key role in helping to separate work from home, the nature of the challenge is ultimately centred around people. But junior employees or graduates fresh out of university are often too worried to speak out. And many would argue it is unfair for them to come up with the solution. Instead, leaders need to take charge and set the boundaries, which ultimately comes down to changes at the day-to-day level. For example, diary invites from clients to attend a call at 9:30pm should be declined by managers before they even reach junior staff. IT teams could even set a reminder after a certain time to not send emails after traditional working hours.

Flexibility is the new buzzword

Businesses that wish to attract and retain the top talent must embrace a culture that ensures employees feel comfortable and supported in their life outside of the workplace. Despite this, a recent report from the CIPD found that while three-fifths (63%) of employers will be implementing hybrid work policies this year, fewer than half (48%) plan to support flexitime arrangements. Our own recent research shows that nearly two-thirds (65%) of workers want the flexibility to combine office working with working from home.

Businesses must be flexible with regard to their employees’ working arrangements, and support them with their time off needs. Here, recognising the flexibility required by many working parents and carers, who juggle work with family commitments on a daily basis, is essential. Whether it’s through job sharing, staggering start and finish times, or compressing working hours, flexibility will be key to sustaining a high performance team.

Encouraging a healthy balance

Offices are reopening and those embracing a hybrid approach must change tactics from pre-covid working practices. Desirability, retention, and engagement are all influenced by an employee’s perception of the value of their benefits. Maintaining a high degree of personalisation is becoming expected of many workers.

Burnout is becoming an imminent threat to the hybrid workplace and employers are starting to take note. In some countries, they are introducing the “right to disconnect” to help encourage a healthy work-life balance. Ireland is just one example of a country which recently introduced a code of practice that gives workers the right not to be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of their usual hours. It’s a great start, but businesses must be at the forefront of encouraging employees to take much needed time away. And remember: small changes can go a long way.