The invasion of workplace technology – should you be concerned?

Written on 12 Sep 2014

The rise of technology such as smartphones enabling employees to access work outside of the office was supposed to ease employees’ stress and enable a healthy work/life balance. And whilst there is no doubt that technology outside the office has its advantages, allowing employees to work more flexibly, businesses to retain their key talent and colleagues across different time zones to keep up to date, this comes with an increasing concern that employees today are increasingly unable to switch off.

The BBC has reported (here) that “since 2010 our daily total media consumption has risen from 8 hours 48 minutes to more than 11 hours”. Many employees are going home and not switching off from work. This can lead to increased levels of stress which in turn has the potential to impact negatively on an employee’s health. And this issue is unlikely to go away with the Government’s encouragement of a more flexible and family friendly workforce. Mumsnet published the results of a survey this week which reported that 74% of working mothers are logging in to email outside their working hours with 48% doing so regularly.

Is there a solution?

Legislation is one option. In Germany, the German Employment Minister Andrea Nahlea has recently announced that she is proposing to introduce new laws which will prevent German employers contacting their employees outside of working hours (see here). Whilst back in April, a collective bargaining agreement between unions and employers in the high tech and consulting sectors in France provided an obligation on employers to disconnect communication tools once employees had worked a 35 hour week (see here).

However, do we really need more legislation? For most employers the answer will most definitely be no – employers in the UK are already grappling with the Working Time Regulations 1998 and Health and Safety legislation. In any case, any new legislation would doubtless contain exceptions for certain workers or even allow an “opt out”, in line with the legislation on the maximum working week. The fact is that many employees do not mind doing that bit more and wish to appear helpful – it is when that bit more starts taking over that employers need to be concerned.

A more practical solution was highlighted most recently this Summer when Daimler, a German car maker, allowed its employees, at their option, to set up a function to automatically delete their emails whilst they were away (see here). The auto-delete message read: “I am on vacation. I cannot read your email. Your email is being deleted. Please contact [other member of staff] if it’s really important, or resend the email after I’m back in the office”.  

However, this auto-delete policy was optional, so query whether it would capture those staff who perhaps would be most tempted to keep one eye on their emails during their holidays. It would be interesting to find out how many staff took it up and to what extent management took the lead. As has been widely trailed, it only takes one person to create a movement, but it takes a brave employee to take such a lead in the workplace.

So what should employers do?

Employers do need to sit up and take notice not only of the advantages technology brings to the workplace but also the all too often forgotten potential downsides as well. Practical steps may include:

  • Ensuring that training includes not only how to “work” the relevant technology but also guidelines on how it should be used and when. What is excessive use?
  • Encouraging employees to use their “out of office” properly, perhaps for the email to be resent to another colleague who will then deal or inform the absent employee on their return.
  • Ensuring that managers do not fall into the trap of taking advantage of those employees who are willing to do the “bit more”.
  • When operating across jurisdictions, allowing employees to take responsibility for managing their working hours around times when demands from other countries require late nights or early mornings.
  • Employers should also ensure that teams are properly resourced, particularly during holiday periods where the absence of employees on holiday may place pressure on others.

These are just a starter for ten and no doubt there are many more creative ideas on how employers really can ensure they get the very best from technology and their employees – and without the need to comply with yet more legal requirements.