Tech & Work

The digital fightback: The struggle to stop work taking over our lives

German carmaker Daimler is the latest company to try to discourage staff from using computers and phones to work out of hours. But is it fighting a losing battle?

While the working day may nominally be 9am - 5.30pm try to stick to those hours in many companies and you risk being labelled a part-timer.

Modern information technology has further blurred the boundaries between work and play, with the advent of email and smartphones meaning we're rarely out of contact with the office. And even if your boss respects your private time, there's no guarantee clients will think twice about hauling you away from your family.

However, a growing number of organisations are pushing back against the creeping extension of the working day.

The latest is the car maker Daimler, which has allowed employees to set up their email so any messages they receive while on holiday are deleted. An automated response tells the sender their email has not been received and suggests an alternate contact.

Use of the system is voluntary, but employees of the German firm have reportedly been told they will not be penalised for taking advantage of it.

Daimler is not the first company to limit out of hours access in such a way, in 2011 car maker Volkswagen announced the company would no longer route emails to employee BlackBerrys during the evenings. Similarly, managers at Deutsche Telekom agreed they would only send emails to staff during the working day.

Unions in France took the idea of protecting work-life balance a step further earlier this year, striking a deal with two major employers in the country that their members, roughly one million workers, were not to be pressured to check their work e-mails after hours.

The idea that limiting the length of the working day boosts productivity dates back to early in the 20th century, when economist Sidney Chapman published his discussion of how worker productivity varied according to the hours worked per day in the Hours of Labour.

Not long afterwards, in 1926, US car maker Henry Ford introduced the 40-hour work week in the face of marked opposition from the National Association of Manufacturers. He demonstrated that cutting the workday from ten hours to eight and the working week from six days to five, while also increasing pay, both increased worker output and reduced production cost.

Nearly one century later, however, the IT industry has a reputation for a less enlightened attitude to personal time, with staff commonly expected to work long days and weekends, especially during crunches to finish projects.

And, at least in the UK, the length of the average working week has crept up in recent years, with people working longer hours to achieve the same productivity as at the start of the global recession in 2008.

Does your company respect your need for private time? What measures have you or your managers put in place to prevent work monopolising your life?

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About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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