We live in an ‘on-demand’ world where access to goods and services is instantaneous. We can use apps to order anything, from taxis to takeaways. This has been made possible by technological advances that give us instant power from the palm of our hands.

These advances have no doubt changed our day-to-day life and routines, making services easier and faster to access. What has this new ‘on-demand’ economy meant for employees and how they work?

Technology and its effects on the workforce

The increasingly mobile nature of the modern workforce means that employees can now check email and information anywhere once they have internet access. Logging in to check emails outside of work is not a new phenomenon but is one that has increasingly become the norm. We now have work phones and tablets that act as extensions of us, which we are rarely separated from. Consequently, we are never truly separated from work and this has led to the creation of an ‘On Demand’ workforce. ‘Always-on’ is the digital equivalent of presenteeism – I am responding to your email at midnight to show I am working. I am working from my virtual desk.

Maintaining a work-life balance

This blurring of the lines between work and life is an issue that has created much debate and in some countries has even led to new legislation. In 2013, the German labour ministry followed the example set by major corporations like Volkswagen and BMW and banned management from emailing staff outside of working hours, except in emergencies. A year before in 2012, Volkswagen had gone a step further and shut down email servers outside of working hours for some staff meaning email could not be sent or delivered 30 minutes before or after the end of the workday. This followed comments from the chief executive at leading French IT firm Atos who controversially said that workers were wasting hours of their lives on email both at home and at work. They took the drastic step of banning email completely. Every time the teams at Morgan Lovell work with a company, email comes out as the number one thing workers want less of. Are we suffering from email overload? What effect is this overload having on our health?

A healthy mobile workforce?

Physically, it is interesting to note that there are no regulations on mobile technology. Whilst we are told to sit a certain distance from a monitor and have our chair at a certain height, there are no regulations for craning to look at your iPad. With a mobile workforce, we are in danger of ignoring the serious health consequences posed by mobile technology.

With the widespread adoption of home working as the holy grail of flexible working practice, studies have shown the increase of depression in some isolated workers. While most people in an office dream of sitting by the beach having a conference call, in reality, the price of freedom can be loneliness. Other people matter.

Workers need downtime and a clear distinction between work and home is critically important in terms of productivity, but also wellbeing – especially to avoid burnout. Being ‘always-on’ could potentially also have a negative impact on an individual’s personal life and relationships, further increasing stress and isolation.

The key for these individuals is to find ways to maximize its benefits while not losing connection to the workplace hive of activity. The office is becoming a social space to bring people together and collaborate.

Switching off an ‘always-on’ culture

So the big question is how do organisations attempt to switch off an ‘always-on’ culture? And, in some cases, should it be turned off altogether?

After outlining some of the negative health effects attributed to an ‘always on’ culture, why wouldn’t it be a good idea to switch off?

For some, clear distinctions between work and home simply don’t work and could cause even more frustration. The whole point of choosing a flexible career is the ability to work wherever and whenever – answering emails while watching TV in the evening might mean a better night’s sleep.

The key, as always, is choice. ‘Always-on’ is detrimental when people feel obliged to be seen to be working in a digital age – as mentioned earlier, a new kind of presenteeism!

For those who want to ‘switch off’, they need to remember that every organisation is different and as such, there is no one size fits all solution. One of the main drivers influencing any organisational change is the example set at the very top. Ensuring senior management embrace any change is crucial. If they are not sending emails outside of working hours, then other employees will follow suit, lessening instants of employees in a permanent state of reactive alert.

For the employee who finds it difficult to switch off, it is important to embrace breaks. Importantly for workaholics, often physical exercise is the greatest way to switch off for an hour. Introducing incentives and facilities for sports or yoga can help reap rewards in the long term in terms of employee productivity and reduction of burnout rates. Organisations can also educate and coach staff through regular sessions, mentoring and communications encouraging them to maintain a work-life balance.

Impact on office design

So, what does this mean for office design? Organisations are increasingly paying more attention to the needs of what is becoming a mobile workforce. Office design will need to have a significant ability to flex with headcount. The ability to absorb workers into physical space means that the one-to-one desk model is no longer sufficient. An element of sharing spaces is necessary in order for the physical space to support the ebb and flow of the business.

The importance of technology in this type of economy also means companies will have to invest significantly in enabling the technology infrastructure. This is both in terms of internet access and ensuring a secure network.

Looking to the future

The battle to maintain a work-life balance will intensify as technology continues to advance and impact how we work. Setting boundaries in the ever-changing workplace becomes the responsibility not only of the individual, but also the company. Employers are putting measures in place to promote workplace and staff wellbeing and this trend looks set to continue as more and more companies embrace wellbeing strategies that have proven benefits.