Work-life balance is out of kilter. According to a poll recently commissioned GFI Software, 41% of employees check work emails at least once a day in their personal time and according to Regus, 39% of employees will be working up to three hours each day while on holiday. These are phenomena of today’s working practices. Could workwrapping restore a new dynamic type of work-life balance?
First, a short history of work-life balance. For employees in traditional 9-5 office working and shift workers, there was a clear separation between time spent working and not working. With the advent of flexible working time boundaries for work became moveable. The location of work also became flexible. What had been an obvious division between time spent ‘at work’ and time away from work now needed defining. The term work-life balance was coined, setting boundaries between ‘worktime’ i.e. activities undertaken for your employer and ‘non-worktime’ for personal and social activities. Work-life balance has been around for 15 years and is now a commonly understood concept. For employees work-life balance was perceived as an employment benefit and provided an assurance that work requirements would not encroach on their personal time.
However people’s behaviour has changed with the advent of new technologies. Personal devices, such as tablets and smart phones, have become an intrinsic part of our personal lives. For many it is natural to take these devices into the work environment. Regardless of whether or not their employer has a ‘bring your own device policy’ they are now commonly used for work activities as well as for personal use. As a consequence we have ready access to business, as well as personal, information and systems.
As well as mixing personal and business information on the same device many people are now mixing their business and personal time – It is quite feasible to undertake personal/social activities in ‘worktime’ and working activities in ‘non-worktime’ the work-life balance boundary has become porous. Within the space of a few minutes we can check our business and personal emails, check the weather forecast, book business travel or a restaurant for a family meal. The term ‘work-life integration’ was coined to describe this aspect of a connected lifestyle. However the concept of work-life integration has encountered strong resistance from some employees who regard it as an intrusion of work responsibilities into their personal life, some claiming they feel, like their devices, that they are ‘always on’, receiving emails and other communications, in the evening and at weekends with an obligation to respond to them immediately, In essence they feel work-life integration tilts the balance in favour of work.
Workwrapping is an extension of work-life integration that redresses the work-life balance but in a more subtle and dynamic way. It exploits the opportunities provided by agile working practices that are being increasingly adopted by employing organisations. With agile working, performance is explicitly based on objective measures of output, and provided they fulfill the business requirements, workers can choose how as well as when and where they carry out their work activities.This increased autonomy in the way employees can work means that, in many cases, employees can prioritise their time.
What if you prioritised your personal activities and wrapped work activities around them? As a simple example if you have a report to write by the end of the week, and the sun is shining you could decide to have an impromptu family picnic. Alternatively if you find you are spending a lot of time queuing in a theme park waiting to get on the rides you could decide to clear some outstanding emails while you are waiting.
It could be argued that this is quite common practice already, but workwrapping takes this a step further by dynamically allocating all available time between work and non-work activities. In reality many employed senior professionals and managers already enjoy considerable discretion in when and where they work and are measured on outcomes and the quality of their work. Outside of the employed world, consultants, and other self-employed professionals have adopted this concept, if not the name workwrapping, They often choose to work at evenings and weekends and substitute some weekday time for social activities. They have also recognised the benefits of addressing issues as and when they occur, even when they had not planned to be working, as “nipping them in the bud” can prevent problems escalating.
Opportunities for Workwrapping
But what of those jobs that have a time presence requirement, such as classroom teachers? In reality a number of professions will have output based elements where there is choice of when these tasks can be done. In the case of teaching, lesson preparation and marking of students’ work. More generally many professions have output based activities such as report writing. The physical presence of operational roles is also being rethought. Take the role of a receptionist as an example. Many small business use telephone based entry systems, eliminating the need for a receptionist to be sat at a front desk. Looking to the future within the next ten years – intelligent software agents will reduce the time presence required for monitoring and control while robots will increasingly be used for activities that currently require a physical presence. The opportunities for work wrapping can only increase.
Workwrapping is a challenge for employers and employees. For employees the trade-off for more flexibility in working time is accepting greater responsibility in meeting work commitments. For employers the trade-off for staff becoming more responsible and responsive is adopting a relaxed attitude to their employees’ working practices, particularly to when staff choose to work. However workwrapping can be a win-win situation: employees can prioritise their time for social and family priorities and with the focus on clearly defined outputs employees can become more productive.
Written by John Eary, Director of JEC Professional Services Ltd. I have a strong track record in advising organisations on new ways of working and exploiting IT effectively. My blog seeks to provoke thinking on the opportunities and challenges of new ways of working presented by technology.