'Work has fully invaded our personal lives.' Here are 8 ways we can work smarter in 2020

The 2010s changed the way we work. Here’s how experts say we can do better in the next decade.
Young woman in deep thought while using laptop on bed at night
Employees have become very flexible at letting work spill into their personal time, but in the 2020s experts hope the reverse is also true.d3sign / Getty Images
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By Sarah DiGiulio

Virtual meetings and instant-messaging apps like Slack mean we have the ability to communicate more easily than ever. We can share files nearly instantly. We can be in communication with our teams in transit from trains and airplanes. If we need to stay home with a sick child or because we're sneezing ourselves, deadlines can still be met.

But experts say that these changes that seemingly make work easier than ever before are making work more challenging in some ways, too.

“Work has fully invaded our personal lives in that we can work 24/7, but the reverse is not necessarily true,” explains Christine Carter, Ph.D,, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley. “We don’t take our personal lives to work in the same ways that we are taking our work into our personal lives.” (Carter is also author of the book, "The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less," a guide to balancing the busyness of modern life.)

There are a few changes Carter and others hope to see in the next decade to get smarter about how we use the technology we have and refocus on the metrics about work that matter. Here are a few.

1. Employees need to be able to take their home life to work, too

Employees have been very flexible towards letting their work responsibilities come home with them. Punching out (and staying offline and away from work) when the clock strikes 5 p.m. is a thing of the past. We stay those extra 15, 30 or 90 minutes to send those last few emails or wait for that client to call. We log onto our email after we’ve put the kids to bed to check if any other “urgent” emails have come in we need to address before heading into the office the next morning. We “get a jump on things” over weekend days we’re not scheduled to work.

In the 2020s, that flexibility needs to be allowed to work in the other direction, Carter says. It means workers need to be able to take their kids to the dentist during the work day or work from home because the plumber needs to fix a leak, she says (because we know we’re going to spend the time later on to get our work done). Human beings want to do their best work, she says. “When you set them up to do well by not creating so much conflict between their families and their personal lives and their work, we do better.”

2. We need to dispel the myth of multitasking

Doing more than one task at the same time (or switching very quickly between tasks) makes us less, not more efficient. Psychology research dating back to the 1990s suggests it’s because there’s a mental cost to the type of mental juggling required to switch back and forth between multiple tasks.

“It’s basically the opposite of productivity,” Carter says. “It makes us feel productive, but it fries our brains to the point where we can’t get anything done.”

We get real, deep work done when we single-task and focus, but we need to allow ourselves to do that, Carter says. And to do that…

3. We need to stop measuring our worth by the sheer number of hours we work

We need to get rid of the antiquated notion that value in the workplace is tied to time spent on the job. It’s an outdated idea that’s a holdover from the first Industrial Revolution from when people worked in factories and the more time spent on the line really did mean more output, Carter says. People who take breaks are actually able to focus more and do more deep work (the type of work that puts our education and multiple degrees to use), she explains.

“We are on the completely wrong track valuing busyness, and looking up to the people who are constantly rushing around and crossing stuff off their ‘to-do’ lists,” says Brigid Schulte, author of the book "Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time." We’re learning from behavioral scientists (who’ve researched and written books on the topic) that that kind of rushing around and feeling out-of-time creates tunnel vision where we are only able to focus on the things that feel most urgent (even if they’re not the most important tasks), she explains. Experiments, for example, have suggested that when people’s resources are very limited they are less able to take into account bigger-picture considerations. Working this way makes us feel productive, but it stops us from tackling those bigger projects on our list that require more complex strategizing and long-term planning.

While there is a lot that individuals can do, there is also a lot that needs to be done on the parts of our managers and leaders to change the expectations for the people who work for them. The people with more power in organizations need to show that what they value is high-quality, focused work over busyness, Carter adds.

4. Employees need predictable time off

There are a couple of ways that technology (over the past decade) has infringed on our time off from work, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, Ph.D., the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Just-in-time scheduling (algorithms that are constantly being updated to make the most efficient employee schedules for companies’ bottom lines) mean a lot of hourly workers don’t know their work schedules until a few days or a few hours before they need to be at work. “There’s an increased pressure on companies to reduce labor costs,” Pfeffer says — and it’s really hurting employees and their wellbeing. (Pfeffer is also author of the book "Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance — and What We Can Do About It.")

It means that people do not know when or how much they will be working. That reality makes it difficult (or near impossible) to schedule child care or elder care help; and for hourly-paid workers, the variation in week-to-week schedules creates economic insecurity because they don’t necessarily know what their income will be, Pfeffer says.

And as Carter explained, for a lot of people technology has made it possible for some workers to always be reachable and made it possible so that we can nearly literally be working or potentially working all the time. For a lot of us, we no longer take time off when we actually disconnect from work. (And there is a plethora of research that suggests real, disconnected time off improves not only mental and physical health and well-being, but it also improves our productivity and performance at work, too.)

For a lot of people technology has made it possible for some workers to always be reachable ... so that we can nearly literally be working ... all the time.

5. We need policies about our digital devices

People are constantly checking their email and social media, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be, says Brad Stulberg, a performance coach (for athletes and entrepreneurs) and author of "Peak Performance" and "The Passion Paradox." Some of that checking gets done under the guise of work, but we know it’s not the smartest nor most effective way to work. And research shows that these devices have addictive properties that are not good for health or wellbeing, Stulberg notes.

“Smart and savvy workplaces will find ways to educate workers about digital hygiene and put in place policies (around email checking in the evenings and so on) to support workers developing healthy relationships with their devices,” he says.

6. We need to continue the conversation about caregiving responsibilities

The conversations about “paid family leave” and “caregiving responsibilities” have shifted somewhat during the 2010s, says Schulte. We recognize more now that work systems better need to account for these realities and systems need to accommodate all workers with caregiving responsibilities, not just “working mothers,” she says. But there’s still a long way to go.

“We haven’t even begun to tackle child care and, increasingly, the elder care responsibilities that most workers have or will have,” Schulte says.

7. We need to continue talking about gender discrimination and harassment in the workplace

The #MeToo Movement has brought to the forefront how pervasive gender-based discrimination and harassment in the workplace are, Schulte says. We’ve started to pay more attention to and recognize the toll it’s taking on productivity and innovation. But we need to continue the conversations with the ultimate goal of creating cultures where all workers can thrive, she adds.

“We still have a ways to go to move on from the backlash phase we’re in now, where some men say they’re afraid to open their mouths in fear of offending someone,” she says. “We need to create work environments where all workers can thrive.” (It’s not that hard, she adds — it requires us to make space for one another’s perspectives and abide by the rule of treating others the way you would like to be treated.)

8. Companies need to show they value their employees in the ways that matter

Free snacks and meditation workshops don’t create company culture or employee wellness. To create a more productive and supportive work environment, companies need to look at the big picture, Pfeffer explains. “You have to really think about every aspect of their job. What can technology make easier? How can you remove burdens? How do we have to change the job to make the work sustainable?”

Leaders in organizations need to step up to ask subordinates what part of their jobs are time-consuming and unnecessary — and then actually give them permission to cut those time-sucking tasks out, Stulberg says. People want to achieve mastery in what they do; people want to progress in their work, he says. “People want to practice those skills at their full and highest potential.”

It’s these types of changes to the work itself that really need to change if we want wellbeing, productivity and innovation in the workplace, Schulte adds. It means investing in human capital and rewarding decent work, she says. “We need to move toward a serious re-evaluation of what we value and how we define success.”

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