The “always on” remote working culture



14 October 2021

In March 2020 the nation embarked on the enforced “lived experiment” of home working.

At outset it was only expected that the new state of affairs would last for a period of 12 weeks, but some 18 months later and there are still many employees working at home on either a full or part-time basis.  And this trend seems unlikely to end, with many surveys demonstrating the continued desire of both employees and employers to embrace some form of flexible working practices into the future. 

Yet such a significant change inevitably leads to new challenges.  And one major concern is where the boundaries between work and rest will now be drawn, and how employers can ensure that employees don’t get sucked into an “always on” work culture.

Recent evidence

This concern can be evidenced by a survey that featured in a recent HR Magazine article.

The research found that almost half (45%) of employees felt that they had to reply to work messages outside of working hours, and nearly two thirds (64%) of those working at SMEs felt guilty about taking holiday too.

These are genuine concerns, which if left unchecked has the potential to lead to burnout and stress.  And it is often only a short step from such conditions to physical or mental ill health too.  As such employers need to consider what protocols they put in place to support their workers.

The approach overseas

So where to start?

Perhaps employers and their HR professionals can take lessons from overseas?

For instance the Republic of Ireland has already introduced a code of practice in this area, with two of the key points being;

  • The right of an employee to not routinely perform work outside of normal working hours.
  • The right for an employee not to be penalised for refusing to work outside of those hours.

Such an approach is likely to be welcomed by employees, but flexibility will be needed.  After all, what works well for one employee may prevent another from working at their optimum rate.

A loose framework

So could employers adopt a loose but effective framework to help with this issue?

Some ideas to consider could include:

  1. Suggest time restrictions for online working hours rather than impose them.
  1. Encourage employees to understand that others may be working at different times, and therefore responses might not be instantaneous.
  1. Encourage employees to “switch off” once working hours are completed– and make it clear that the employer fully endorses and supports such an approach.
What about line-managers?

The above simple steps might go a long way towards avoiding the “always on” work culture and many of it’s associated problems.  But to be a real success Human Resources professionals will need to ensure that line managers also fully understand and engage with this approach.

So line managers should be taught to look out for – and discourage – excessive “on line” working practices, and also to signpost employees to support as and when it may be needed.  And, ironically, many of those support tools are also available outside of normal working hours. 

Employee benefits such as Employee Assistance Plans (EAP), remote GP appointments, and physical and mental health support apps can be accessed at most times of the day or night, and will hopefully provide both employer and employee with some valuable support to avoid the worst excesses of remote overwork.

The reality is that remote working is here to stay for many employers and employees, and it’s in the interests of both groupings to ensure that this is not excessive in nature, and also supported with tools accessible wherever and whenever the employee may need them.

For more information on any of the above topics, please speak to your usual Howden Consultant in the first instance, or visit our website for other contact options.  

Published 14/10/21

Steve Herbert

Steve Herbert

Steve is Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing, and is an award-winning thought leader on Pensions, Employee Benefits, and Human Resources issues. He is occasionally accused of making Employee Benefits interesting.

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