Always-on culture: how to counter its business risks

Always on culture isn't the secret to productivity – it's poisonous to it. We explain the business risks and impact on your team morale.

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We all know the scenario. You’re relaxing in the evening and your phone gives off a suspicious ping. ‘I’ll just deal with this email,’ you think. ‘It won’t take long’.  Before you know it, your relaxing evening has blended into your working day, and your personal phone is being used for work yet again.

Technology gives us the option of being ‘always on’ when it comes to business – answering calls on the school run or spending the commute on emails instead of being tied to our desks. But this means that boundaries between professional and private life are increasingly blurred.

Business founders have twin responsibilities when it comes to this shift in work life balance: they must decide for both themselves and for their employees where the boundaries lie. Get it wrong in either direction and they risk burnout for themselves, disengaged staff members, a toxic work culture or the business not growing as it should.

Here’s how to walk the tightrope.

Openly or unconsciously expecting always on culture

Managing your own work life balance is one thing, but once you start employing others, you have further responsibilities to ensure that everyone balances the success of the business with their own personal downtime.

And, like it or not, the behaviour and personal leadership style from the top can set the patterns of employee expectation for all staff. Regardless of whether or not you’ve told your team you expect them to be on call at all hours, if they know the boss is online at 10pm sending urgent emails, you’re creating an expectation of response.

Though UK laws aren’t as enshrined as those in the EU, staff have a right to disconnect and gain that all-important work-life balance. Aside from legal responsibilities, your duty of care towards staff should also be part of the organisational culture you’re seeking to foster.

Caroline Marshall, who runs her own virtual assistant agency Upsource, acknowledges that she works at odd hours, but can’t expect the same of her team. “As a mum of two little ones and a founder, I can work anti-social hours. But, that is because I am passionate about my business, and some time parenting in the day means I work differently,” she says. “I don’t believe in expecting that amount of passion from your team.”

Elizabeth York, a psychologist, and consultant at BPT Lab, which provides personality tests, says that an ‘always on’ office policy poses a “direct risk of increased burnout for both employers and employees”. However, she acknowledges that, for some employees, the ability to do their work at times that are more convenient for them will trump ringfenced hours for working. “It is crucial, as always, to consider various nuances.”

Kraynov, at FunCorp says the important thing is to be clear from the outset. “There will always be corporate heroes, who are willing to put in extra or unsociable hours to please their bosses, but a good leader should understand that prolonged exposure to such schedules may be damaging to employees’ mental health and prevent this from becoming standard practice,” he says. “To avoid any problems, it’s important to communicate the demands of any job clearly to make sure employee and employer expectations are aligned.”

The founder’s dilemma of being always on

Being ‘always on’ can cause burnout, but it can also help your business to grow. For solo founders in their early stages, there’s an understandable temptation to work around the clock whenever you’re needed.

Tech expert James Bore, who runs cybersecurity business Bores, says that without the ability to pick up calls at any time on his business mobile, his company would not flourish. “There’s always a chance of a client calling at any point with an emergency that we need to be ready to pick up,” he says. “Worst one I had was a call at 4am, in Japan, on honeymoon, to deal with an international cyber security incident. It’s just part of the job.”

Bryan Clayton, founder of lawnmowing business GreenPal says that startup founders need to embrace the ‘always on’ culture. “It’s a relentless, seven-day-a-week commitment.  The reality is this kind of dedication is table stakes in the startup world. You can’t shy away from being deeply involved in every facet of your business, from customer support to sales.” With employee expectations, he says, there needs to be a balancing act. “While a startup environment does often require more flexibility and longer hours, there’s a responsibility on the part of founders and managers to acknowledge the effort and dedication of their team.”

Anji McGrandles, founder of The Mind Tribe, which provides wellbeing strategies for workplaces, says there are even benefits to work culture when staff are ‘always on’. “The constant connectivity promotes wider collaboration fostering a sense of connection amongst teams. Staff can easily share information, provide real-time updates, and contribute to projects irrespective of physical location, promoting a collaborative and dynamic work environment,” she says.

However, this must be done in the context of setting boundaries for everyone. “Without clear boundaries and ‘cut off’ points, then the boundary between personal and professional life can become blurred which leaves employees vulnerable to burnout and impact their overall wellbeing.”

Changing dynamics set the ‘always-on trap’

Working 9-5 started to go out of the window as soon as mobile phones came in. Chris Bone, founder of holiday break business Adventure Solos says that he remembers the advent of the Blackberry when he worked in finance. “You ‘scored points’ for replying to an email received at midnight within 30 minutes”, he recalls. Remote working, exacerbated by the pandemic, as well as the fact that many businesses now have global teams, mean that being ‘always on’ is almost inevitable.

With most of us now using mobile phones as well as apps such as WhatsApp as part of our work arsenal, the temptation is always to reply as soon as a message is received, or a call is made. Heidi Ellert-McDermott set up a business called Speechy, providing wedding speeches for events. The business is global and due to the nature of the work, people expect her to be available 24/7, she says. “WhatsApp means you must be even more responsive than ‘old-school’ email enquiries,” she adds. “It’s a challenge… having to check messages before engaging with the kids at breakfast and responding to messages after nights out!”

Max Kraynov, Group CEO of entertainment tech developer FunCorp, says that there is “no one size fits all solution” to communication in today’s globalised world. “It’s much easier to establish ground rules for when employees should be available when the entire company works in the same building or time zone,” he says.

Setting clear boundaries to counter always on culture

To reach the delicate balance of serving customers and growing a business while ensuring that employees don’t burn out, embrace technology, and ensure you set clear guidelines for staff. Taking the following steps will help

  • Set the tone from the top

Vicky Selby, leadership coach from Now is Now, says she works with many executives who don’t realise that by sending emails late at night or calling out hours they are sending a signal that this is the expectation. “It’s typically not the case as they do it when they have time, but I work with leaders to ensure they avoid setting this expectation and putting the level of pressure on their employees”. Instead, using delay send or ensuring your email signature acknowledges that down time is important will help set a better tone.

Gareth Hoyle, Managing Director at Marketing Signals says he’s added a permanent note to his stating“I am sending you this email at a time convenient to me. I only expect you to respond when it is convenient to you.”

  • Get the tech right

There are many technology tools that can help mitigate an always on culture.  Kamyar Shah, CEO of World Consulting Group, recommends tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams which allow employees to change their status to ‘away’ or ‘out of office’. This helps in setting boundaries and managing expectations,” he says. Shah also recommends email scheduling tools which prevent the scheduling of emails being send during work hours, as well as wellness and time management apps that remind staff to take breaks. Bone, at Adventure Solos, says having two phones, separating work, and personal notifications, can also help set boundaries for all.

Kraynov, at FunCorp, warns, however, that too much tech can be a burden too.“Technology that helps teams collaborate across geographies could also be terrible for work-life balance. My advice would be to reduce the number of group chats as they’re a huge distraction and concentration killer. Instead, scheduled meetings with clear agendas work best.”

  • Own the problem

It’s easy to slip into a harmful culture, but by keeping communication open, counsellor Georgina Sturmer says employers can improve workplaces and prevent burnout. If we can encourage open and honest dialogue around boundaries and mental health in the workplace, then it’s more likely that we will understand the reasons why employees might struggle to stick with them.,” she says.

Finding the work-life balance

While the relentless march of technology and rise of remote working has provided a fertile ground for an always on culture, business founders need to weigh the benefits of connectivity against the risk of burnout for themselves and staff.

Andy Coley, a professional boundaries trainer, says that we should all seek the ‘sweet spot’ where your team is responsive and engaged but can also switch off and recharge. “That’s the key to a healthy, sustainable work environment,” he says.

Rosie Murray-West freelance business journalist
Rosie Murray-West

Rosie Murray-West is a freelance journalist covering all aspects of personal finance, as well as business, property and economics. A former correspondent, columnist and deputy editor at The Telegraph, she now writes regularly for publications including the Times, Sunday Times, Observer, Metro, Mail on Sunday, and Moneywise magazine.

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