24/7 replacing the nine-to-five

May 16 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Changes to the economy, technology and working culture are signalling the end of the nine-to-five working day. But does this mean that the daily grind is just going be replaced by a still-more onerous 24-hour treadmill?

According to a forum of leading business experts, we shouldn't be alarmed by the idea of a 24 hour working day, because changes in culture will let us decide how, when and where we get our jobs done.

That, at least, is the view of the Tomorrow's Work Forum, an organisation convened by Microsoft and including representatives from the Trades Union Congress (TUC), London School of Economics (LSE), Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD).

But the Forum also concluded that the merging of work and personal life is inevitable in an economy increasingly dominated by services.

"Growing numbers of jobs are now based on creating and sharing information," said David Gartenberg, HR Director of Microsoft UK.

"They are the kind of jobs that let people be flexible about when and where they work. More sophisticated technology enhances this flexibility and gives us the opportunity to break away from the office based nine-to-five routine."

However while it argued that this will create an opportunity for people to have more say over how their working lives are managed, the freedom and flexibility to work how and when we want comes at a price.

The freedom and flexibility to work how and when we want comes at a price

"Creating a culture that lets us decide how and when we work to deliver the best results depends on a great deal of trust between managers and workers," said Nigel Stanley, Head of Campaigns, TUC.

"Technology enables autonomy, which can improve job satisfaction and motivation, but it can also be used to control. There needs to be reciprocity and respect in relationships. If employees get something from you, you should get something in return."

"Technology is really like a magnifying glass, it just shows you whether you've got a good work place or a bad work place."

Strong management is also essential to ensuring that a flexible culture works effectively, said the CMI's Petra Cook.

"We lack a culture in Britain that celebrates professional management.We have an opportunity to create a much more adaptable working culture, but it needs clear codes and ethnics to work. Managers need to take responsibility for shaping culture and putting rules and parameters in place."

Part of the challenge involved in creating the "24 Hour Office" is in changing the way targets for workers are set and productivity is measured.

"Britain was very good at managing the industrial society," said Dr Carsten Sorensen, Associate Professor in Information Systems, LSE.

"But the strengths of industrial management are a hindrance to a strong management culture in an information economy that's driven by technology. Our productivity now depends on the networks we form with other people to get jobs done."

"We need to stop measuring only by the amount of products people make and measure the network of relationships and the value they deliver more effectively instead," Dr Sorensen added.

The Forum's conclusions are echoed by a YouGov survey of 2,000 office workers which found that seven out of 10 already feel that technology has blurred the lines between work and personal life and only one in seven (14 per cent) are happy with this distortion.

With more than four out of 10 respondents saying that their colleagues don't know when they can and can't contact them outside of "normal working hours" and a similar proportion not switching off their mobile phones overnight to avoid work-related calls, the strong message is that employers and employees need to take more responsibility to make sure parameters are agreed to define work and personal time.

"Work life is changing rapidly and technology is a major catalyst for that change," said Microsoft's David Gartenberg.

"It's clear that the lines between work and personal life are blurring. This can create a great opportunity for employees to improve their lifestyles and for employers to improve the quality of their output, but it's crucial that the change is managed responsibly."