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To connect or not to connect? How can we regulate working practices?

Accelerated by the development of digital technology, the development of remote working in various guises is reshaping the boundaries between personal and professional life. In particular, there is a growing trend to stay connected to work accounts outside of working hours. How can we manage this desire not to “lose contact” [1], or “miss new opportunities”? How can we regulate connection practices?

Through a literature review, this article proposes to identify the origins of this trend of constant connection, as well as the various individual, collective and organisational levers that can be used to help escape the grip of instantaneous communication.

 

The origins
Information overload… an age-old problem

As early as the 1960s, information overload was identified as a source of stress among employees, producing dysfunctions and hindering efficiency.

There are various concepts related to information overload (see Figure 1).

FIG 1 - ENFigure 1: Concepts associated with information overload

It is a multi-faceted concept, comprising:

An information dimension, with constant and exponential growth in the volume of information to be processed and great variation in the quality of that information;

A time dimension: the fluctuations in the time necessary to find and process the relevant information;

A cognitive dimension: the individual’s feelings and emotions about the overload, which will depend on that individual’s capacity to handle the volume of useful information.

Information overload can therefore be defined as the situation in which an individual finds him/herself when he/she receives more information than he/she can process without adversely affecting his/her work or his/her health.

 

Transformations in the world of work and “instantaneous communication”

Accentuated by the boom in digital technology (more information, circulating faster; more tools, more links between the personal and the professional), the changes in work (summarised in Figure 2) are leading to the emergence of a new social norm that is a source of information overload: instantaneous communication.

 

Image transformations mondes du travail_29062016 - 80Figure 2: Transformations in the world of work

 

At first, the employees most affected by feelings of urgency and information overload were typically older men working in large telecommunications companies or information technology. They generally work in an international environment, have a high level of education, hold senior positions and have a large number of employees reporting to them [2]. However this communication norm, which is manifested in ever shorter response times and a need to be connected all the time, then spread to other occupations and sectors that had not previously been affected.

Risks for companies and employees

For a company, there are many risks related to information overload and constant connection. The first category of risks are the potential adverse effects on decision-making processes (quality of decisions, time taken to make them). Too much information can lead to misinformation. Another category are psycho-social risks, since information overload, combined with a feeling of urgency, can lead to users being overworked. Overwork, when paired with a feeling that work has lost its meaning, leads to burn-out.

Finding solutions…

Solutions to counter the dominance of this new social norm can be found at individual, collective and organisational level, but also require the state to enshrine a “right to disconnect” for all employees. Such a right looks set to be established in the French Labour Code for the first time by the El Khomri bill, which gives companies until the end of 2017 to get to grips with the issue [3]. It will then be up to each business sector to work out the practicalities of enforcing such a right through national or sector-specific collective agreements. Lastly, in view of the sheer variety of individual practices, each company will have to adapt to its own specific constraints (its markets, the jobs done by its employees, etc.).

At individual level

On another scale, given the acceleration of life rhythms [4], it is important to highlight the individualization of our relationship with time [5]. Furthermore, every individual has his/her own relationship with time, which is built slowly and tends to become quite stable. The qualitative studies on the organizers highlight different levels of reflexivity in the organization of our daily work and life: some are spontaneous, while others prefer to plan their time or are creatures of habit [6]. Forms of resistance to “constant connection” are also built at individual level, according to the individual characteristics of each person (individual ways of managing time; job-specific constraints; degree of autonomy at work depending on socio-professional category, family situation, particularly having or not having young children or other dependants; the habits the person has in his her private and professional sphere, etc.). That resistance is manifested in digital usage practices by a desire by employees to introduce a degree of delayed response so as to be able to work at their own pace, by the introduction of temporary rules on availability in different working contexts, and by the compartmentalisation and separation of personal and professional use (different email addresses, different mobiles, separate contact lists on social networks, etc.).

At organisational level

However, between individual actions and measures taken at state level, companies can support disconnection efforts in various ways.

At organisational level, one of the first things that can be done is to introduce usage policies for workplace technologies, even if they are rarely used outside of litigation. Only a quarter of current employees demand such a document [7].

Other actions aim to raise users’ awareness

to encourage them to send fewer emails:

using corporate social networks instead of emails (trials have been carried out to this effect at Atos);

experimenting with disconnection application modules (e.g. Orange O’zone) [8];

employees able to connect, but their emails will only be sent later (at Renault, for example).

and to help them to better manage the emails they receive:

customising tool settings (e.g. deactivating the pop-up when a message arrives, which acts as a cognitive attractor by encouraging the use of email as a synchronous tool);

working to change senders’ attitudes. e.g. Daimler-Benz, which has introduced a system notifying the sender if the recipient is absent, telling him that the email he has sent has been deleted and that he should resend it to a designated contact person; in most cases, the colleague covering the absence is not contacted.

In a bid to raise awareness among managers this time, companies are also advocating the principle of leading by example (e.g. Areva, Orange O’zone) in their use of email, which means not giving in to the temptation of instantaneousness (managing priorities, establishing time slots for replying, preferring face-to-face or telephone communication where possible, etc.), and limiting the number of emails they send outside of office hours or at the weekend, etc. All of these awareness actions might make people aware of the problem, but very rarely do they lead to changes in routine [9].

At collective level

Between the disconnection principles that each individual tries to find and those implemented at company level, other solutions can be found locally, in working collectives, through the regulation of collective behaviour in relation to digital usage practices. For these to succeed, one necessary ingredient is solidarity among employees. It is important, for instance, to seek a sense of reciprocity, with colleagues co-opted to step in during absences, particularly in teams that are in direct contact with customers.

The strength of a working collective also gives a more powerful voice to expressions of disapproval at “deviant” behaviour (e.g. being asked to monitor emails during holidays).

The importance of collectives in solving disconnection problems should not be neglected, particularly as the issues caused by constant connection can be a matter of perception, not least because companies are places of subordination. One example is emails sent by a superior, which the recipient is likely to feel obliged to reply to quickly, whereas the email in question was not necessarily considered urgent by the sender.

Collectives therefore represent an important resource in countering information overload and constant connection, both in finding solutions and in terms of the mutual assistance that can be established within them, including at emotional and psychological level, through solidarity among their members. Consequently, the stability of collectives is important, as it makes it possible to avoid frequent reconfiguration of cooperation rules, which itself entails extra work [10].

Conclusion

Knowing how to switch off is a skill that is mainly built at individual level, but needs to be supported at legal level (through a “right to disconnect”), at company level (through usage policies and awareness-raising actions), and through conducive collective environments. Better use of digital tools requires awareness of the problem, but also collective regulation and trust in employees, hence the importance of consideration of the matter within working collectives. In law, the notion of the employee and the employer having “joint responsibility for disconnection” is gaining currency [11].

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