Artificial Intelligence and the vanishing Work Life barrier

Artificial Intelligence and the vanishing Work Life barrier

The problem of overwork and Work Life balance in industry is not new, but it has gone through three phases in the past couple of hundred years. In the 19th century there wasn’t a problem, because nobody expected to “Have a Life”. Employees worked very hard, 12 or more hours a day, six days a week, year after year, until disability or old age stopped them. They had to do it, if they wanted their children to eat. The 20th century gradually saw the introduction of decent work conditions over much of the world: the weekend was extended to two days, and the workday was defined at 8 hours.  By mid-century you could work a 40-hour workweek, earn a good living and have time for family and recreation.

And then came personal computers and the Internet and took it all away.

It is important to note that in the 1950s and 60s you could still overwork, and many people did – these were known as Workaholics. However, they were limited by the constraints of the technology of the day. Blue collar workers would’ve had to stay late at the workplace, which was often disallowed. White collar workers could remain at the office until dinnertime, but then they had to go home; and overworking from home was only feasible in roles where you could take work (piles of paper) to process at home after hours, which only a minority of people did.

Today almost everyone can work around the clock, and our reality has changed from one in which you had to make an effort to enable after-hours work, to one where the default state is that you work 24×7, to the extreme detriment of your life, your family, and your sanity. In part this was enabled by the arrival of mobile devices, ubiquitous connectivity, and the growing fraction of jobs (and tasks within jobs) that are computer-centric. However, these factors would not matter so much had it not been for the changing nature of the work to be done. Today’s work includes a major component that simply wasn’t there in the 50s: the endless barrage of incoming email, social media interactions and other messages, which takes up some 40% of the week. These give employees an incentive, not to say an imperative, to clear their many inboxes, feeds and streams around the clock, in order not to fall behind. In fact, where yesteryear’s “workaholic” was choosing to work long hours in order to exceed expectations and (hopefully) get promoted, today everyone works much longer hours merely to keep up with the job’s basic requirements. Meanwhile, the Work Life barrier is fast becoming a distant memory.

So, what can we do about this issue?

One thing we can’t do is go back. Some valiant attempts to prevent employees from taking their (electronic) work home have been seen in Europe, but with the trend of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) blurring the boundaries between “Work computer” and “Life computer”, there is only so much you can do. With your work and home email swirling around you wherever you go, no regulations can stop them from assailing your off hours. Reducing the overall quantity of incoming messages is very desirable, but requires cooperation across at least your own organization, which may or may not be an option. A simpler solution is to accept the flood of incoming mail but to filter it intelligently so not all of it needs to be read, and not at all hours. After all, even if you receive 150 messages daily (and many folks do), 50 of them are totally useless and should go straight to the wastebasket, and of the remaining 100, maybe 20 require your attention – but some of them can wait. But how do you know which?

This is where today’s advanced software solutions, such as Knowmail, come into play. By learning your needs, priorities, and behaviors, such an AI-based tool can steward your incoming message stream and point you at the few important messages – when they are relevant. And although the canonical example is “Ask Knowmail if I have any urgent emails regarding my upcoming meeting”, I think the next natural step will be to use the same capability for protecting your home and family life without damaging your work. As in “Tell Knowmail to push only personal messages that I care about after 6PM, but block all incoming work messages that can wait for tomorrow morning”. If you can do that, you can really restore the barrier and get some quality of life for yourself and your loved ones. But – you ask – how on earth can we expect Knowmail to know which personal messages you care about, or which work messages really can’t wait? But then, of course we can – that’s why it’s called artificial intelligence, isn’t it?

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.

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