Surviving the 24/7 Future Workplace

What will the future workplace look like? We all know that Millennials believe in flexible working hours and working from home. Millennials do not see work and life as two opposing weights that need to be balanced, but rather as two puzzle pieces that need to fit. These Millennials are now the largest generation in the workplace. In a few short years, these 18-35 year-old flex hour, work-life fit employees will be leading the workplace. What will their workplace look like? If today’s trends continue, we can say one thing – their workplace will exist 24/7.

When I teach inter-generational workplace dynamics, I spend a great deal of time discussing how the concept of work hours has changed over the past century. As the 18th century proceeded with its industrialization and especially its introduction of electric lighting, factories made their workers put in substantially longer days than before – 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. The workers rebelled. Through unions and collective bargaining, factory workers started demanding shorter hours and 5-day work weeks. And, eventually, business leaders said yes, most famously, Henry Ford and his motor company. Then in 1938, President Roosevelt institutionalized the 8-hour work day with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and its overtime pay requirements for certain employees. As the century continued, the 8-hour work day /40-hour work week became the default standard for many other white collar workers as well.

Now for many Traditionalist and Boomer lawyers, the 40-hour workweek was never a true reality. Client and partner demands often made the work week 50, 60, even more hours than that. However one thing did remain constant – work stayed in the office. Yes, you could review briefs at home or edit contracts in bed, but, for the most part, the work day had a distinct beginning and end.

Technology Facilitates 24/7 Work

Enter our current technology revolution. With the advent of PCs, the Internet, smartphones, and Cloud-based document management systems, the work day does not need to end at 5pm anymore. Technology, particularly mobile technology, has allowed the work day to go on all day, every day. It has reached the point where commentators no longer see us living in a traditional 9-5 workplace. Instead, we are living in a 24/7 workplace. And that’s the workplace Millennials entered and are now poised to lead.

There are certainly advantages of the 24/7 workplace. Gone are the days of being tied to your desk while awaiting a client call. Now you can take the client call after your 6pm spin class. The legal memorandum does not need to be researched in the library and written at the office. It can be researched online, typed at home, and emailed to the partner at midnight. Client files are no longer stored in bulky redwells. Instead, you can download the file off of your office’s cloud, call the client on Sunday at 3pm, and have the documents ready to go before that night’s episode of Girls.

But there’s a caveat. Technology means that you can make your daughter’s softball game (while taking a conference call). Technology means you can take a two week vacation (while checking your work emails). Technology means you can go out on a dinner date (while reviewing some deal documents). Technology means that you can live your life, on your own terms, but that your life and your work become inextricably intertwined. Those are the golden handcuffs of the 24/7 workplace.

The idea of working 24/7 is of course very familiar to lawyers. As The New York Times stated in a recent article about the 24/7 workplace,

The pressure of a round-the-clock work culture — in which people are expected to answer emails at 11 p.m. and take cellphone calls on Sunday morning — is particularly acute in highly skilled, highly paid professional services jobs like law, finance, consulting and accounting.

Working Too Many Hours

The Times article focused on two researchers who were asked by a major consulting company how it could increase retention of its female employees. The researchers concluded that the problem wasn’t simply family-friendly policies or flexible working hours. The issue was larger than that – everyone was just working too many hours. Did they need to? As one of the researchers stated: “Is it really necessary for people to be on call 24/7? The answer is increasingly no … These professions are beholden to the whims of the client, and every question has to be answered immediately — but it probably doesn’t.”

Therein lies the challenge for Millennial workplace leaders. Technology makes it absurdly easy to work 24/7. Client and partner demands may seem to make it necessary. But as every generation continues to struggle with work-life balance, the question is how to balance work and life when work becomes handcuffed to life? When taking conference calls at Little League, checking emails on vacation, and reviewing deal documents on a date, become an accepted part of the modern workplace? We need to work. We need to live. Do we need to mandate logging off to truly balance both? That’s the work-life challenge for Millennial leaders in this new 24/7 workplace.


A version of this article appeared in Michelle’s Millennial Mouthpiece column in the October issue of Legal Management magazine.

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