Managing the ‘always on’ culture – a myth buster and agenda for better practice

Professor Almuth McDowall (Department of Organizational Psychology) shares her research into worklife balance and calls on employers to take responsibility for their organisation’s culture.

Break, Business, Business People, Businesswoman, Cafe

There is much being written and said about the ‘always on culture’ and how we are increasingly glued to our digital devices – whether at work or at home. Some of my own research has also concerned itself with this topic. My colleague and friend Gail Kinman and I had the results from a practice survey published in 2018 as we wanted to know what organisations are doing about the changing world of work, and the use of information and computer technology.

Well, precious little is the answer. Over half of our respondents said that their organisations don’t have a relevant policy in place and don’t offer any guidance or training. Somewhat worryingly over 40% thought that it should be up to individuals to manage the issue, rather than their line managers or human resources.

Why would people choose to be ‘always on’ outside formal working hours?

Working unpaid during leisure time does not make logical sense! We gift the UK economy billions in unpaid overtime year on year, as research by the Trade Unions Congress has revealed. Our systematic review with colleagues Svenja Schlachter, Ilke Inceoglu and Mark Cropley pointed to a complex picture.

People have different motivations, influenced by issues such as what everyone else does (social norms), what the expectations in the job are, how committed people feel to their job, how they value ‘switching off’ and recovery and whether this is supported in their environment. One key issue which came out of this review is the ‘empowerment enslavement paradox’. Our digital devices are both an enabler, as they afford flexibility, but also ‘digital leash’ as it’s difficult to say ‘enough is enough’ and switch off. As we all know, screen-time can be very seductive.

Is there any evidence that being ‘always on’ is bad for our health?

A recent econometric analysis shows that ICT infrastructure has a positive impact on population health (the authors measured general health outcomes such as infant mortality etc.). Regarding the impact of social media use, there is evidence that high use is linked to poor sleep quality, anxiety depression and low self-esteem. Of course, such studies cannot tell us whether teenagers who are highly anxious to start off with are more likely to be prolific users.

There is far less robust evidence on the exact effects from the world of work – what happens to you if you are on your phone, tablet or laptop near 24/7? We lack good research to tell us what the exact effects are.

What we do know though is that we need recovery and respite, our systems are simply not programmed to be on continuous overdrive. We also know that leisure activities which are quite different from our work tasks are better for our recovery than doing more of the same. I take this to heart. For instance, I find that reading at night doesn’t help me switch off as academics read rather a lot at work, so I take ballet classes online (and am known to teach the odd one myself!), knit and crochet.

What can organisations do?

Employers have a duty of care and should ensure that people are not overworked and can switch off. Worklife balance research tells us that those who live ‘enriched’ lives have better mental and physical health, important for them, and important for their employer. We should actively support employees by ensuring that:

  • A worklife balance policy is in place as a point of reference; then check processes and structures against this policy
  • Employers review job design and ensure that digital tasks (checking and responding to emails, synchronising devices, remote calls and conferences) are actually captured in people’s workload and tasks – these often fall off the radar
  • There is consultation to ask employees what they need – mutually negotiated boundaries and solutions work much better. Think creatively about flexible solutions!
  • Everyone, including senior leaders and managers, role models good behaviours. People need time to switch off, so don’t expect your staff to be available outside normal working hours
  • Staff are offered training and development. Managing in an increasingly digital workspace requires up-to-date management and leadership skills
  • Employees look out for implicit expectations and ‘rumours’. “I check my emails on holiday because this is what is expected of me”. Really? Question such assumptions as they can often take on a life of their own

Finally, if in doubt, ask a psychologist. The Department of Organizational Psychology is keen to work with organisations to establish, consolidate and evaluate best practice.

Further information:

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The proposed ‘right to disconnect’ after work hours is welcome, but not enough

This post was contributed by Professor Gillian Symon, member of the Digital Brain Switch project. Involving a multi-disciplinary team of UK researchers (including Birkbeck’s Dr Rebecca Whiting), the project explored the ways in which mobile communication technology  affects how we switch between different aspects of our lives. This article was originally posted on The Conversation on 23 March 2016.    

Changes proposed to France’s famously inflexible employment laws by French president François Hollande have prompted an outcry among students and unionists and even the barricading of schools by pupils. But among the raft of changes to working practices is the liberating notion that employees should have the right to disconnect: to ignore emails from employers during evenings and weekends so that time with friends and family is not affected by work distractions or feelings of guilt.

Limited interventions of this sort have been put forward in Germany and France before, but this is the first proposal that the right be enshrined in law.

There is much to like about it. First, it recognises the massive impact the widespread use of smartphones and tablets, Wi-Fi and high-speed mobile internet has had on our working lives. In as much as work emails, diaries and contacts are on a smartphone in our pocket, to some extent we are never truly “out of the office”. The proposal seeks to counter this in legislation, not to leave it to corporate custom and practice.

Second, the proposed legislation acknowledges the considerable research that suggests that we need to psychologically detach from work regularly, or risk becoming exhausted and losing our creativity.

Third and most importantly, it makes the employer at least partly responsible for managing this intrusive technology and its effects on employees. There is a recognised paradox, whereby technology allows flexibility over when and where we work, but at the same time acts as a leash that chains us to our (virtual) desks. For too long this has been seen as something employees themselves should manage.

The research into work-life balance my colleagues and I have conducted suggests that achieving the right balance has become another “life crisis”. It is one that is fed by endless media articles and self-help books, and one that is almost certainly unresolvable by the individual as so much of the pressure comes from bosses and colleagues at work. What we’ve found is that there needs to be respect for individuals’ chosen work-life boundaries at all levels within organisations.

So congratulations to the French for taking this particular taureau by the cornes. But is their proposed approach through new legislation the right answer?

It’s not easy, and often employers don’t make it any easier. wongstock/shutterstock.com

As far as it goes

There are three ways digital media and mobile technology have affected our lives that isn’t acknowledged by legislation, which is concerned only with time spent connected to work. In our research we’ve sought to highlight the creeping effects of “digi-housekeeping”: those endless technology maintenance tasks that we engage in – updating software, syncing devices, fighting technical problems – which often takes place outside of office hours and doesn’t appear on time sheets. None of this is accounted for by legislative approaches.

Nor does legislation address the way in which the use of social media for work may intrude into our privacy. When we blog and tweet for our employers, are we exploiting our personal identities for their ends? Are these additional tasks, and the need to maintain our digital presence online, causing us anxiety and increasing our workload without any formal recognition of the effort involved? These sorts of activities go beyond a concern with just maintaining a time boundary between work and life. They represent new tasks required to maintain our digital work lives.

What’s more, because the French legislation presumes an employee-employer relationship, it entirely ignores the anxieties of the self-employed, as those taking part in our research told us. While those working for themselves have always had to work hard, social media has put added pressure on them to be constantly online and accessible to maintain their business. We need more imaginative interventions that will address the needs of specific groups such as these.

What are 21st century working lives like?

The French legislation is important primarily because it makes clear the responsibilities of employers and organisations. However, it’s also rather a blunt-edged tool that doesn’t appreciate the intricacies of our online lives. Legislation like this enforces a strict work-life boundary that may be a thing of the past.

Read the original post on The Conversation

Read the original post on The Conversation

Our research collaborators kept video diaries that captured the complex circumstances of today’s workers in a more revealing way than traditional surveys can do. These video diaries suggest we might be making sense of our lives in radically different ways in the 21st century. We distinguish between online and offline lives rather than work and non-work hours, and we think more about how we prioritise time, rather than how we divide it.

To support flexible working, we may need flexible legislation that is based on other considerations than time alone, including where and how we work best. It’s very unlikely there will be a one-size-fits-all solution; researchers and policymakers are going to have to find more creative 21st century solutions for this very 21st century problem.

So the French government’s move to formally recognise the distraction caused by unfettered technology is welcome, but limited. To improve upon it, we need to understand much more fully the complexities of contemporary digital online lives, what boundaries people now find important, and how the law can best support them.

Find out more

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics, Categories . Tags: , , , ,

CEO rewards – More does not equal better

This post has been contributed by Dr Almuth McDowall, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Organisational Psychology, with input from Paul Hajduk from PayData, Jonny Gifford from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Dr Zara Whysall from Lane4 and Dr Duncan Jackson from Birkbeck. It builds on a recent practitioner report Almuth and colleagues produced for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (The power and pitfalls of executive reward: a behavioural perspective)

CEO

The size of the packet

Chief executive officer (CEO) pay is a serious topic which requires serious and well-informed debate. In one way or another the size and makeup of CEO rewards affects everybody – either because it can be seen as part of the trend for wealth to be increasing concentrated in the hands of the few, or because the measures that drive the package do not necessarily serve the best interests of society as a whole.

The average UK CEO wage packet is now around the £5million per annum – imagine 100,000 £50 bank notes lined up neatly in a row to get an idea of what this means in reality. We witnessed ‘fat cat Tuesday’ in the first week of January; when CEOs had earned the average UK workers’ salary in just 22 hours.

Are CEOs worth the money?

The notion of the ‘fat cat’ and unfair pay gaps has been vehemently disputed as ‘pub economics’ by the Adam Smith Institute’s director Sam Bowman. The argument runs that organisations need to be profitable to survive so they can make a contribution to a nation’s economy; and that the value of a CEO is hard to quantify in an absolute sense.

Clearly, organisations need to be effective to survive. It is also arguable that the figurehead at the top contributes the most to the long-term success of the organisation. The symbolic value of the person at the top is great, and can make or break corporate success hence CEOs should be rewarded proportionally to their input. But does proportion equate to 180 times the average workers’ salary?

How can we explain the growth in CEO rewards?

In our report, Paul Hajduk of Paydata undertook a robust analysis of pay trends over the last few years. He set out to test whether the rise in CEO pay could be explained in the context of UK wealth creation. Yes, there is a widening gap between rich and poor, however the number of people in the 1 million plus earnings bracket has remained relatively stable. CEO rewards continue to grow, quite out of proportion to the rate of growth of high pay generally and also to the rather unsteady growth of the UK economy. So the growth in CEO rewards cannot be accounted for by wealth increase per se, can it be justified in terms of increased organisational performance? Apparently not. An interesting paper reveals that organisations with particularly highly paid CEOs are unlikely to be in the top 10 percent of high performing organisations [WSJ, 2015].

Paul says: “There would appear to be little to support the argument that high CEO pay growth is justified by how their role is often positioned, which is as wealth generating entrepreneurs. Yes, they may lose their job if things do not go well but they rarely lose much of their own money. We have yet so see if clawbacks built into reward arrangements will be truly effective in creating significant downside risk in CEO reward packages”.

This leads to the wider question of how organisational performance is benchmarked.

What is the link between CEO rewards and organisational performance?

Most organisations benchmark CEO success against hard measures such as profitability and productivity, the bulk of research in the field also concerns itself with financial indicators. Far fewer organisations use non-financial metrics such as staff health, safety or engagement measures in their annual reporting. However, it is important to consider the human aspects of performance and their link to organisational outcomes. One US study considered the characteristic of the CEOs of US basketball teams and the link to measures as wide ranging as external team reputation, winnings and fan attendance at matches (Resick, Whitman, Weingarden and Hiller, 2009). There is a shortage of parallel evidence in a business context which considers the relationship between differentiated measures of CEO performance, and the scope of their impact on organisations such as their members, including intangible assets such as motivation and engagement.

Are our reward structures creating the wrong kind of CEOs, or are our CEOs creating the wrong kinds of rewards?

Dr Zara Whysall from Lane4 says: “Our work with a range of organisations has shown that reward practice in organisations lacks an evidence-base, CEO reward practice appears no different. People tend to overestimate the motivating force of money in particular where rewards are delayed and not immediate, and we also do not pay enough attention to non-financial rewards and the impact they have an on organisation’s culture and ethos.”

There have been several high profile instances of rather dysfunctional examples of CEO stewardship particularly in the financial sector. It is therefore important to try and understand the influence CEOs have. Research shows us that powerful CEOs are good at negotiating rewards and clever at shining the spotlight on favourable indicators [Morse et al., 2014].

Time for a change?

There is a strong case for change in executive reward practice given that the justification for the maintaining the current status quo is at best dubious. However, the research detailed in our report shows that barriers are ingrained and institutionalised. Whilst there is body of people who support change and who state openly that the UK (and the world?) needs more considered, innovative and ethical CEOs in the future, there is less consensus on how such change can be brought about.

The vision for the future

London docklandsGiven the lack of evidence to support the ever escalating size of senior rewards, CEO salaries should be a smaller multiple of average earnings, with smaller bonus packages, and reduced long term incentives such as performance share schemes. But is it a more pressing question that in order for change to happen we need different people at the top?

There is the argument that any capping of rewards policy changes will negatively impact organisations’ ability to recruit and retain the quality of people needed to position themselves positively in the global market place. To counter this, it is informative to compare and contrast CEO reward in the most successful mission-led businesses. When profit distribution moves from being the primary motive the CEO reward package loses, in most cases, most of the upside variable pay elements and share-based pay disappears altogether. And yet these businesses attract and retain very able leaders who are maybe motivated by things other than the size of their reward package.

A fundamental shift in leadership practice might need to accompany these reward changes. There is ample evidence that shared leadership is better than top centric leadership [Wang et al., 2014]. It is also a fact that diversity at top levels does not mirror society at large. Only radical revision of selection, talent management and reward processes and structures will change the current status quo. Our report makes distinct recommendations for how to put this into practice.

But are our recommendations radical enough, or should we start again with a blank slate? Dr Almuth McDowall says: “This has been a fascinating and complex research project which we hope will offer a rich springboard for debate. There appears a cautious consensus that change is needed, yet a certain reluctance to challenge the current status quo. Do read our report, and let us know – are our recommendations radical enough?”

Find out more

References

  • Morse, A., Nanda, V., & Seru, A. (2014). Compensation Rigging by Powerful CEOs: A Reply and Cross-Sectional Evidence. Critical Finance Review, Vol. 3 No. 1, pp. 153-190.
  • Resick, C. J., Whitman, D. S., Weingarden, S. M., & Hiller, N. J. (2009). The bright-side and the dark-side of CEO personality: examining core self-evaluations, narcissism, transformational leadership, and strategic influence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(6), 1365.
  • Wall Street Journal (2015) How much the best-performance and worst-performance CEOs got paid. 25th June 2015
  • Wang, D, Waldman, D. A. and Zhang, Z. (2014) A meta-analysis of shared leadership and team effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 99 No. 2, pp.181 -199
Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , ,

A holistic approach to beating the bullies

The post has been contributed by Dr Andreas Liefooghe, Department of Organizational Psychology, with Dan Vacassin, Birkbeck Alumnus and Director of Indigogold

Of all the problems that find their way into leaders’ in-trays, one of the thorniest is the issue of workplace bullying.

Workplace bullyingIt’s an emotive and highly sensitive area, one that can have a pernicious effect on team morale and productivity, result in good employees leaving a business and cause significant reputational damage.

Dealing with bullying is no easy task, not least because the first step may well involve accepting that senior management is responsible – however unwittingly – for creating the conditions in which it can take root.

Allowing for the (relatively) rare clinical cases, the vast majority of bullies are made, not born. They are part and parcel of any human group dynamic – from the school playground to huge multi-nationals – and from an organisational perspective they often represent the dark side of the aggressive, ‘my way or the highway’ corporate culture that tends to promote those with the loudest voices or the most go-getting natures.

Such a statement should not be seen as an attempt to excuse the offence; bullying must not be tolerated under any circumstances. But simply removing the perpetrator or placing the victim(s) out of harm’s way will not address the underlying issues. In most cases, it merely ends up creating a vacancy for another bully or victim.

If bullying is prevalent, it must be tackled institutionally, not individually. The primary aim should be to establish a culture whereby behaviours that bring people together are valued more highly than those likely to set them apart.

One of the key steps to achieving this is mobilising bystanders, so that anyone guilty of an act that could be construed as bullying will find themselves receiving a tap on their shoulder and encouragement from a colleague to go and apologise. To us, there’s no better sign of a healthy organisational culture than people feeling they can give honest feedback on a colleague’s behaviour or performance without fear of reprisal.

Tolerant organisations are invariably more innovative, too, because employees will not be fearful of suggesting new ideas or better ways to do things. Individuals will also be much more willing to speak out, even if this involves delivering bad news. How many recent corporate or public sector scandals might have been avoided if the organisation and its management had been more open to criticism from within? Most – if not all – of them, we’d argue.

In the UK at least, bullying is not yet against the law, although harassment relating to factors such as age, gender, race and sexual orientation is covered by the 2010 Equality Act.

The lack of legal jurisdiction underlines the nebulous nature of bullying. It is an issue that needs careful and sensitive handling, but in our view the biggest mistake leaders can make is to let it become all about the individual or individuals, rather than facing up to deficiencies in the organisational dynamic.

Find out more

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Business Economics and Informatics, Categories . Tags: , , ,