“Always On” Work Culture

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On Friday, October 5, 2018 the Wall Street Journal published an online article entitled “How to Disconnect from ‘Always On’ Work Culture.” The following day the same piece appeared in the WSJ’s weekend print edition (Saturday/Sunday, October 6-7, 2018) with the title “Far From The Madding Co-Workers.” Its author, Matthew Kitchen, is the newspaper’s “Off-Duty Gear & Gadgets” editor.

Judging by the writer’s curious job title, I should have lowered my hopes for the article that graced section D’s front page beneath a captivating illustration by artist Steve Scott. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I dove into the first column like a social scientist expecting the latest research results from universities in Helsinki, Tokyo, or London mixed with insightful analysis about the status of blue-collar and white-collar workers. Unfortunately, though the article features some telling social commentary, that content feels overshadowed by the tech recommendations that Kitchen shares to better handle the onslaught of electronic requests from bosses and colleagues. Bummer.

In my eyes, a promising opportunity to explore a problematic element of  Western work-life — our inability to detach from the office — was not fully realized. Rather, the topic’s critical mass was mostly skirted in favor of a half-dozen suggestions for apps (the ubiquotous moniker which causes techies and non-techies alike to squeal with delight) that could be used to slow the rush of work-related e-mail and texts. Given Kitchen’s “Gear & Gadgets” job title, however, I understand that his approach to this article is entirely reasonable. He is, after all, the WSJ’s tech guy. But I can’t help but ask this question: When are we going to get serious about the fact that the intrusions of our “always on” career focus are created because the cultural mindset around work — and not so much the technology that the office embraces — is the issue that needs unpacking?

Sadly, the idea of getting serious is thrown half-way out the proverbial window when Kitchen opens his piece with this sentence: “I have a masochistic need to please bosses, so I’m never more than a few feet from my iPhone (notifications humming at all hours) and I never leave home without a MacBook in tow” (page D1). In terms of setting the tone, this sentence suggests that what is to follow is not going to be an evenly-balanced assessment of how the desire for career stability (and/or advancement) is complicating the need for work-life balance, familial intimacy, and long-term personal sanity. Rather, the author seems to be letting readers know that he isn’t going to tread very far from his charging cords and touch screens.

Kitchen tosses another wrench in the works when he remarks in the second paragraph that he is a millennial. While I understand his desire to be forthcoming about his age bracket (and thereby imply that he possesses an inherent affinity for digital technology) I find it troubling that he does not follow this statement with a caveat. And that caveat would be that even though millennials have been accused of being self-centered, entitled, and virtually addicted to technology because of their status as “digital natives,” they have also been shown to be remarkably astute social and cultural critics. Respected men and women from the Greatest Generation have given millennials their due credit, praising their cultural consciousness, awareness of civil rights conflicts around the globe, and desire to confront injustice in nearly all areas of commerce and social welfare.

Isn’t the infiltration of work-related communication into time that should be dedicated to child-rearing or bonding with one’s spouse a form of injustice? The middle of Kitchen’s article seems to indicate that it is, as he cites research from several studies and entertains thoughts of altering his own “masochistic need” to hover over his devices at all hours. But in the article’s conclusion he provides — in a non-humorous attempt at being humorous — that he is about to share “the ultimate key to work-life balance” except  “actually wait. Can you hold on a second? I gotta take this” (page D11). I find this conclusion to not only be a largely failed attempt a cleverness, but a sad comment about the importance of critically examining how educated adults are voluntarily letting work-related requests (and/or demands) run rampant over time that should be spent with friends and family — or even with just oneself.

This criticism aside, the article features some valuable research results as well as warnings about the negative impacts of our Pavlovian response to smartphone alerts. Consider these findings, which I am producing verbatim:

  • “According to a 2016 study by the Academy of Management, employees tally an average of 8 hours a week answering work-related emails after leaving the office.”
  • “[A] Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association found that 30% of men and 23% of women regularly bring work home.”

Offsetting these depressing (yet certainly not surprising) research results are the following developments that foster hope that we can curtail the invasion of work into our personal lives:

  • “In 2017, France instituted a new labor law that supports a new frontier in human rights, the ‘Right to Disconnect.'”
  • “Similar rights have been extended in Italy and the Philippines, are being explored in Germany and Luxembourg and were proposed in New York City.” (Note — Given NYC’s failed attempt at limiting the sizes of soft-drink containers in 2013-2014, I have doubts as to whether this new and certainly worthy initiative will find traction.)

I will not hide my disappointment with the fact that my hopes were unrealized, but I do credit Kitchen for acknowledging the subject. The Wall Street Journal should also be recognized for deeming this article relevant enough to place it on section D’s first page. Granted, section A would have been ideal. But I admit that it is very difficult to criticize digital technologies in 2018 — a time when they add tremendous value to our lives — without fear of being labeled a luddite. I simply wish a greater discourse was occurring around when, where, and how we employ these technologies. When left unchecked, use can turn quickly to abuse. We owe it to ourselves — and to our relationships with family, friends, and fellow community members — to talk (and write) more candidly about always on work culture.

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