How technology is helping create work-life integration

How is technology improving work-life balance, and what still needs to be done to ensure that employees are happier and by consequence, more productive?

It seems like a contradiction to say it, but technology can and is helping people maintain a better work-life balance and bring greater flexibility into the workplace. While much of the focus has been on how technology erodes the boundaries between work and home by creating an always-on, always-connected and therefore always-in-the-office environment, some companies are using technology to do the opposite.

Many technology-enabled work-life programmes tend to focus on how such devices and software can help employees seamlessly work from anywhere. But true work-life balance is not about increasing opportunities to work, but rather using technology to improve employees' lives and support them beyond the workplace.


Integration not balance

Clayton Moulynox, Director of Culture at Auth0, says that in today's always-on, connected society, the concept of "balancing" work and home life is somewhat antiquated. "It's not as if they're separate things, teetering on each end of a giant seesaw. Work is a subset of life, and the goal should be work-life integration," he says.

Brendon Craigie, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Tyto PR, says that many different things are lumped under the heading of work-life balance, but for him, it is about creating a business culture and an operating model that allows individuals to fulfil all their aspirations in work and in their personal lives. "Too often people are forced to compromise on one of these two things," he says.

"A lot of attempts to address the work-life balance issue are merely sticking plasters that don't actually get to the nub of the issue - that the idea of being chained to a desk is incredibly limiting. This is especially the case in a world where people are increasingly forced to commute further and further to work in order to fulfil their private aspirations."

Craigie believes that mobility and the flexibility to work from anywhere is the greatest transformation in enabling true work-life balance. "With this freedom, you can turn off your computer at 5.30pm and be enjoying your personal life immediately after. For the majority of employees however, this just isn't the case because they have to spend between two and four hours commuting per day. That's a staggering 10 to 20 hours a week."

Tyto PR's location agnostic model means the company does not mind where people work as everyone effectively works remotely. "When everyone is remote, no one feels remote," Craigie says.


Beyond remote working

But while remote working can aid employees in better balancing their work and personal lives, especially in terms of cutting down on commuting, it can also mean that personal time is eroded if not properly managed. In addition, work-life balance is about a holistic approach that integrates aspects of both personal and work life in ways that work for the individual. With that in mind, many organisations are now looking at other ways to help employees achieve work-life integration.

Workplace culture specialist, O.C. Tanner, for example, champions a good work-life balance and uses technology to encourage staff to improve their lifestyle habits.

O.C. Tanner uses a Virgin Pulse app which links to staff's wearables. All staff have been given a free-of-charge wearable and so there is real-time data on their exercise levels as well as sleep cycles, eating habits and so on. The app also provides tips on reducing stress levels as well as information on who to contact if staff are having a bad time at work. 

By linking the app and wearable to the company's recognition software, staff can be rewarded for healthy habits. In the case of O.C. Tanner, the rewards are 'points' which are put towards gifts. As each member of staff sets their own personal goals, whether exercise, eating, sleeping or mental health related, there is no pressure to reach any company-created targets. 

Supporting the technology aspect of the wellbeing programme is the company's mental health 'first aider' who provides advice and support to anyone who may be suffering with mental health issues.


Wellbeing tech

O.C. Tanner's wellbeing programme is voluntary, however it has seen a fantastic take-up from people across the company because it effectively links with tangible rewards and focuses on personal goals. The fact you can also create 'challenges' which members of staff can choose to take part in or not, adds to the fun factor.

This wellbeing focus is being adopted by other companies wanting to help their employees coping with increasing stress levels. According to Bupa, almost 12 million working days are lost each year because of work-related stress. Statistics from the NHS noted that more than five million people in the UK are being signed off work every year for work-related stress.

"Creating a working environment which enables employees to effectively manage their work-life balance is paramount to ensuring employee wellbeing. This in turn leads to better productivity, increased morale and therefore, by default, increased profits. Due to this, work-life balance is high on company agendas," says Monica Atwal, a Director at Forbury People.

David Brudö, CEO and co-founder of the mental health and personal development app for individuals and businesses, Remente, explains that in order to minimise the stress and anxiety associated with a lack of balance, it is important to create routines and set goals to be achieved that day, month or year.

"This helps individuals to feel more in control of the situation, and give them better direction," he says. An array of apps and online services have launched to help workers with this, such as Toggl, which tracks the time worked on a project, as well as the Remente app, which you can use to create useful to-do lists and set goals.

"And with stress, anxiety and depression being the most common reasons for taking a day off, employers certainly have an incentive to provide support. As the technology has become cheaper and more accessible, a number of possibilities have opened up," Brudö says.

"At Remente, we know it's impossible to supply a life coach or therapist to everyone who needs them, and so we created the Remente app in an attempt to grant everyone access to the tools they need to improve and maintain their mental wellbeing, regardless of who or where they are in the world."

Bespoke apps that help employees cope with stress and ensure a greater focus on health and wellbeing are just one way in which technology is being integrated in a positive way. Despite fear of job loss, automation can also play a role in cutting down on work stress and allowing employees to focus on the parts of their jobs which they enjoy and where they excel.


Automation for better work-life integration

Neil Murphy, Global VP at ABBYY, says that humans should not always be first choice for many of the tasks that make businesses run smoothly. He cites the example of the repetitive and work-intensive processes like collecting, classifying and processing large numbers of documents and data. "Our research found that the top jobs employees want robots to do for example, is data entry (16%), tracking time (14%) and electronic filing (12%)," Murphy says.

Murphy points to research that shows that Britain's productivity crisis doesn't show signs of stopping any time soon. According to the ONS, the average British worker produced 16 per cent less than their G7 counterparts in 2016.

"Businesses are looking to solve this productivity puzzle while improving job satisfaction, and part of this is ensuring a healthy work-life balance, rather than sacrificing employee happiness in pursuit of pumped-up production," he says.

He adds that, despite scaremongering headlines, the job market as we know it is not facing an existential threat from automation and in fact,  ABBYY's recent research found that two-thirds of UK employees want to delegate work to robots.

Automation technologies provide an opportunity for many maligned tasks to be delegated to robots, according to Murphy. "Enabling employees to work in partnership with robots enhances their job satisfaction, allowing them to spend more time on adding value to their businesses where it matters most and supporting a healthier work-life balance - employees no longer have to stay late spending time on admin tasks that had to wait until the end of the day."

The research also found that, as the younger generation grow alongside technology, they are becoming accustomed to menial tasks being more efficiently conducted through automation, unlike the older generation - half (50%) of over 55s do not believe a robot could do better than them at tasks, compared to only 34% of 18-34 year olds.

Murphy emphasizes that businesses need to educate staff on how best to make the most of their time alongside automation. Selling automation to the workforce and providing the necessary training and onboarding is vital to ensuring that humans can work in harmony with robots, which will in turn free up their time to focus on other things, he believes.


Getting the culture right

Technology should always be complemented by a workplace culture that supports the individual and prioritises wellbeing. For example, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founders of Basecamp and NYT best-selling authors, offer employees sick days (whether it's for the flu or for depression), stipends for fresh produce and massages, vacation days (and up to $4,000 to pay for it), and a one-month sabbatical when sick and vacation days are not quite enough. All their employees have the option of working remotely, yet are paid as if they live in San Francisco. 

Monica Atwal, a Director at Forbury People, says that managing technology use is vital as an always-connected environment can mean that staff may never fully switch-off, leading to stress, exhaustion and reduced productivity. Companies should be transparent with staff about their expectations of working time and lead by example. "Give employees a work phone or laptop so that they have the ability to work remotely if there is a tube strike, not to engage in email threads with clients in America at 2am from Monday-Friday week in week out," she says.

Auth0 has worked hard to get that culture right. Moulynox says: "Auth0 is a distributed company with more than 400 employees across 32 countries, and we have a baked-in culture to support remote work. Our offices are more like hubs for collaboration, creativity, and face-to-face connection. We believe work is a thing you do — not a place you go."

This is also reflected in Auth0's personal and professional development, and company policies. They provide a free, digital library of eBooks and audiobooks that cover a raft of subjects, from career advice, to philosophical reads that just get folks thinking about the world. Vacation time, expenses, and the annual company offsite are built to support employees, wherever they are.

"We believe time as an employee at Auth0 should be in pursuit of life — not in conflict with it," Moulynox says. "If balance is the goal, technology can be a hindrance: you'd have a work phone and a home phone, or a work laptop and a home laptop. But if the goal is integration, technology is an enabler. Cloud-based technologies allow us to work from anywhere, any time, on any device. We can take photos and videos of our kids at soccer practice, and still be available to answer a work message in Slack, or order UberEats for dinner."