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Future Work/Life Balance: Anywhere, Anytime

Topics: Work Culture
Future of Work/Life Balance
Image Credit: aylinstock/Getty Images

If you feel like you’re already working around the clock, but your boss is still “most displeased with your apparent lack of progress,” you may be dreaming of the days when automation takes over the workforce, robots do all the jobs previously held by humans, and we can all kick back and enjoy a comfortable life supported by a government-provided universal basic income (UBI).

It may sound like a daydream, but some pretty smart people think it may actually come to pass, Tesla and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, for one.

“[With a UBI] people will have time to do other things, more complex things, more interesting things. They’ll have more leisure time,” said Musk.

If that happens, it sounds pretty good. I think.

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Until then, it’s likely we’ll all still be working. But given the ability of ever-evolving technology to let us work from anywhere and at any time, will the “always-on” mentality become the future norm for work/life balance?

Perhaps. What’s more likely, according to most experts, is that our jobs become more flexible. The eight-to-five, Monday-to-Friday in the office will be replaced by working from wherever you want at any time that makes sense. (Obviously, group projects, meetings, etc. will need to be scheduled. But individual tasks can be completed at any time, provided deadlines are met.)

Where Will We Work?

Way back in 2009, Atlantic writer Daniel Indiviglio wrote, “With each day that passes, the necessity of actually being in an office diminishes.” Indiviglio then predicted:

Any job that can allow employees to work from home will increasingly do so in the years to come. Why? Because it saves money. You can eliminate a great deal of overhead cost by allowing employees to “hotel” offices or cubicles on the rare occasions that they must be present. Sure, there’s some technology cost involved with virtual meetings and conference calls. But as technology gets better, that will get cheaper. Of course, there are also intangible benefits to employee morale by letting people spend more time at home and less in the office. I see rise of working from home leading to a healthier work-life balance for those who do so. You save commuting time, can more effectively utilize downtime to take care of personal issues or errands, and have more flexibility over your schedule.

It appears Indiviglio was on to something; according to a New York Times article on a Gallup survey, “Last year, 43 percent of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely,” which is up from 39 percent in 2012.

From the same report, workers who spent 60 to 80 percent of their work hours working outside the office were the most engaged in their jobs, with workers who spent up to 100 percent of their time outside the office more engaged than those who worked in the office all the time.

Another survey, reported by Minda Zetlin of Inc., found that 76 percent of employees are more productive when they aren’t working in the office, with 14 percent saying “they could be productive at the office — but only outside business hours, when everyone else was gone.”

Why is the office such a bad place to get work done? Survey responses cited interruptions from co-workers, a distracting atmosphere, office politics, uncomfortable workspaces, and the stress of commuting.

As far as commuting goes, we’ve all fumed at the amount of time we waste getting to and from work. So why not cut that out of the equation all together and add the time you’d spend traveling to the workday?

When Will We Work?

As for the eight-to-five bit, that, too, will likely change.

The eight-hour workday was famously implemented by the Ford Motor Company in 1914. At the time, it was an astonishing move, as many nineteenth-century manufacturers had their workers pulling 10-16 hour days. (The shift made Ford’s workers more productive during the time they were at work, negating the loss of time they actually spent on the factory floor.)

New research has shown that even the eight-hours day overestimates worker productivity. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “in an 8-hour day, the average worker is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes.”

This has much to do with human biology and Circadian rhythm. According to the Harvard Business Review:

Although managers expect their employees to be at their best at all hours of the workday, it’s an unrealistic expectation. Employees may want to be their best at all hours, but their natural circadian rhythms will not always align with this desire. On average, after the workday begins, employees take a few hours to reach their peak levels of alertness and energy — and that peak does not last long. Not long after lunch, those levels begin to decline, hitting a low at around 3pm. We often blame this on lunch, but in reality this is just a natural part of the circadian process. After the 3pm dip, alertness tends to increase again until hitting a second peak at approximately 6pm.

What this tells us is that workers are most productive at specific times of day —which can and often do differ depending on the individual — and that the maximum amount of highly productive time is likely less than half of what we typically spend in our offices. The length and structure of the workday is ripe for future disruption.

“Imagine if we truly embraced this information,” writes Melanie Curtin in Inc. “Even if we didn’t cut a workday down to 3 hours, what if we cut it to 6? What if the norm was a workday of 11am-5pm? People would be better rested, more focused, and likely more productive.”

Additionally, some workers find they’re most productive outside of standard work hours. “Owls” — the actual academic name for people who like to stay up late — are more mentally alert at night, and assuming they’re working independently, there’s really no reason they should have to be in the office bright and early if they won’t be productive.

It’ll Be Up To You

Based on this research, in the future it’s likely that remote, any-time work will become the norm, or at least much more prevalent than it is today. We’re already moving in that direction.

And if you work better from where you want at the time you want, what employer would stop you?

Tell Us What You Think

What are your predictions for the future of work/life balance? We want to hear from you! Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

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