Professor Claartje ter Hoeven of Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences studies how digital technologies reconfigure work. Together with master's student Nadine Büchler and Dr. Ward van Zoonen of the University of Amsterdam, she investigated at two major international organisations what constant connectivity at work does to employee well-being. Conclusion: not much good. We talked to her about the causes and consequences of being available 24/7 and her advice for organizations.
How is it that we are becoming more and more accessible for colleagues?
Of course, technology plays an important role. Company laptops and phones make it very easy to answer an email in the evening, when you're sitting on the couch. Work and private life soon get blurred. One of the reasons people feel obliged to remain available after working hours is because they have also combined work and private tasks during the day. This is especially true during the covid-19 pandemic and the stay at home mandate.
What effect does being constantly connected have on employee well-being?
Increased connectivity after work has a negative effect on people's well-being. They wake up less fit and feel less active, relaxed, and cheerful. It is important to distance oneself from work at the end of the day, in order to start the new day full of energy the next morning. Everyone needs that. Without some detachment from work, your well-being will deteriorate.
Some people might just like to integrate work and private life. Is being constantly connected also disadvantageous for them?
In the scientific literature, there is talk about so-called integrators and segmentators. In other words, people who like to integrate different areas of life, and people who prefer to keep their work and private live separate. But our research shows that constant connectivity also has a negative effect on the well-being of integrators.
Why is it difficult to turn off your work laptop and phone at the end of the day?
We found three factors within organizations that enhance constant connectivity. People find it difficult to distance themselves from work:
- Because of susceptibility to social pressure, if everyone does it, you feel obliged to do it yourself;
- Through visibility of the online communication of colleagues after working hours;
- Because people feel their constant connectivity is an extension of their professional identity.
There is a classic example of the latter point in a study of a large organization selling shoes. The people who work in sales sell the shoes, they are doing the work that keeps the organization running. However, people who work in the legal department had more difficulty with the question "what is the reason for our existence?". They saw the usefulness of their job mainly in supporting the sales people. They got the idea that they had to be constantly available in order to be of real value. If being available is part of your professional identity, then this will enhance constant connectivity and subsequently decrease well-being. .
How can organizations ensure that people actually end their workday on time?
People who have managerial positions can play a role in this. It's important that they don't e-mail on the weekends, because that way you communicate: 'that's what we do here, working on the weekends'. You have to organize it in such a way that 'down time' is accepted.
A manager at Google once said: “There is no such thing as an important e-mail.” If something is important, just call. If that is your approach, then there is no organizational culture in which you feel you have to check your e-mail all the time.
There are organizations, such as Boston Consultancy Group and Volkswagen, that have policies about e-mailing after hours. At Volkswagen Germany, for example, e-mail programs were blocked after 19:00. The question is whether that is really necessary, because sometimes it is very useful to finish something after working hours. What is especially important is that there is an organizational climate in which diversity in terms of connectivity is okay. Ultimately, you want healthy employees and sustainable employability of people.
What can employees do themselves to get away from work more easily?
In addition to turning off the laptop and phone, other research by Dr. Lieke ten Brummelhuis has shown that it is good to do something after work, for example, play sports or meet up with friends. This is even more important during this pandemic and the subsequent stay at home mandate, because work and private life are now even more intertwined.
Everything has ended up in one large space. The experience of commuting home is no longer there. However, there are some people who work at home, who still get dressed in the morning, get in the car, drive around and then park in front of their house to get started. It works for them!
Biography of Professor Claartje ter Hoeven
Claartje ter Hoeven is the scientific director and coordinator of interdisciplinary research and master program ‘Organizational Dynamics in the Digital Society’. Her research interests include organizational communication, digital technologies, organizational psychology, and employee well-being.
Together with the Municipality of Rotterdam and colleagues from Public Administration and Organizational Psychology, she is involved in a Knowledge Lab called: Organizations in a Smart City.