Last night I had dinner with a friend who had just started a week long summer holiday. When I asked how she had spent her first vacation day, she told me she had been working. I, of course, reminded her that a holiday was by definition supposed to be a break from work.
Yes, yes, she assured me. She was going to take some time off, starting when she left town on Day 3. When her holiday week started she had 2 days of work to complete and 2 days of holidays in town in which to do it. It was all working out well.
It seems my friend, like so many others these days, is taking a working holiday.
It was not that long ago that a “working holiday” would have been considered a complete oxymoron. The raison d’etre of a holiday has traditionally been about getting away from work: to take a break, to rest, to rejuvenate, to re-energize.
There are a whole host of very good reasons why holidays are legislated. When people work too much, when we don’t take a break from the world of work, both our health and our work, and by extension our workplace, suffers. Research into the neuroscience of leadership by Dr. David Rock has proven that leaders and those they lead make more effective, creative decisions when they are relaxed, safe and having fun.
Now in the olden days, before PDA’s and 24/7 worldwide connectivity became our reality, “getting away from it all”, was pretty easy to do. These days it can be virtually impossible.
On the surface it appears that this development is great for business. An employer may still be paying employees for a 40 hour week, however, providing an employee with a smartphone often alters that aspect of the employment contract.
The technological capability to be available wherever, whenever creates an unspoken assumption, which can quickly translate to a cultural norm in a workplace: whether or not an employee is at work, he/she must be available to deal with work related issues. If one fails to do so, that could prove to be a “career limiting” move, somehow demonstrating a lack of commitment to one’s job and/or one’s employer.
The critical issue here is the unspoken or implied part of this assumption. New or changing technology will by definition change how we work. Unless an employer is strategically and deliberately engaging in communication about those changes, employees will watch, wait and then follow whatever everyone else seems to be doing. If everyone else is answering emails at 11 pm and when on holiday, if colleagues are working rather than taking holidays, those behaviors will very quickly become cultural norms.
So what’s the problem?
My experience with my clients as well as my research in this area establishes that this new cultural norm is increasingly contributing to employee anger and resentment. Workplace incivility is on the rise. This unspoken requirement to be available 24/7 too often creates a perception of unfair and disrespectful treatment among many employees, particularly when combined with a lack of recognition, acknowledgment or increased remuneration/rewards. Work life integration, increasingly valued by Gen X and Y employees, seems impossible to attain.
Rather than increasing efficiencies, the inevitable result is a loss of productivity and creative energy, as well as an increase in employee disengagement, conflict and turnover. Ever increasing numbers of employees are unhappy at work and wanting to change jobs.
Given the reality of a struggling economy, an interest in doing more with less, as well as an increase in corporate globalization, the fact that employees can now respond to an issue when it happens regardless of where they are can create huge business advantages. Technology offers incredible opportunities for business, but like any other opportunity, the critical factor is in how we manage it.
Albert Einstein said “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.” The “problems” that new technologies have created in our workplaces are only problems because most employers have failed to engage in strategic, collaborative dialogue about how to manage them.
It is one thing to allow those that choose to work on a holiday to do so. It is quite another to require employees to do so, either overtly or through an unspoken assumption and/or ever increasing workloads.
Are there unspoken assumptions about the requirement to be available on an on call basis in your workplace? How might those assumptions be affecting attitudes and behaviours at work? How might they be fuelling an interest in seeking employment elsewhere? Have you calculated the bottom line cost of employee dissatisfaction and turnover that can result from a “working holiday”?
The summer holiday season is not quite over. This is an ideal time to start talking and find out.