We just launched Money Archives, a new experience where we're digitizing decades of our print Money magazines. This is the third in a series of Then and Now stories that examine how personal finance — and our coverage of it — has evolved over time.
Back in the early ‘90s, only a choice few could afford the convenience of a mobile office.
How rare was it to have an office in the car? Well, rare enough that we devoted an entire March 1990 article, The Ultimate Office on Wheels, to exploring how top executives were using new devices like cell phones, car faxes and mobile computers to take their work on the road.
The C-suite and top-level managers found independence from the office increased their productivity. As sales manager Cincy Brown told us at the time, “I’ve cut down my need to be in the office by 50%.” Advancements in technology meant she got a lot more done, completing administrative tasks in the car while still out closing sales.
Of course, 30 years and a pandemic later, the mass availability and relatively low prices of the no-longer-new tech have allowed some companies’ entire staffs to take their work wherever they go.
By most metrics, this flexibility has increased productivity across the board. It might also, however, have come at a significant cost.
The cost of 24/7 availability
Remote work offers plenty of benefits, including less time commuting and more flexibility. But having our kitchens, dining rooms and couches become our office spaces can also take its toll.
“We’re working more each day — around three hours on average,” says Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It. She says she believes that, instead of reclaiming the time we once spent commuting, “we developed this toxic productivity where we felt like every single moment that we have free we should be working.”
Studies largely confirm that remote workers are working longer and feeling more overwhelmed — when compared to their on-site counterparts, stay-at-home employees are logging in more hours and reporting symptoms of burnout in higher numbers.
A survey conducted in late 2020 by staffing firm Robert Half showed that 70% of professionals who shifted to remote work due to the pandemic were also working on weekends.
While the pandemic certainly increased stressors, workplace wellness experts like Moss believe that the blurry lines between work and life have been detrimental to many employees’ mental health. The much-publicized “quiet quitting” phenomenon — used to describe a growing trend where employees do just what their job requires and nothing more — is often seen as a backlash to 24/7 work demands.
Unblurring the lines between life and work
While not many people would profess a love for sitting in traffic, leaving the office to commute home can serve an important purpose: It gives closure to the work day and establishes a boundary. Without this, and with our tendency to leave our computers (and notifications) on throughout the evening, it’s harder to disconnect.
“We have to start looking at our own guilt around rest and our guilt around not being productive,” Moss says, adding that workers need to change the way they think about time off. “We look at it as taking a break, a break from productivity … it's not a break, it's productive rest.”
While many employees have taken matters into their own hands and set firmer boundaries, some workers will not be able to do that without support. In its 2022 framework for workplace mental health and well-being, the U.S. Surgeon General provides guidelines for how employers can help their staff navigate these challenges. For one, it recommends that companies establish policies to limit digital communication after or before work hours.
These non-binding recommendations might lack the legal power behind the “right to disconnect” legislation passed by some European governments, which give workers the right to be unreachable during off-work hours. However, the Surgeon General’s recommendations might indicate growing awareness regarding longer work hours, the dangers of burnout and how employers can help prevent it.
In addition to limiting off-work communications and requests, some companies have used innovative approaches to prevent overworking and burnout. For instance, in late 2020, Google experimented with “no meetings weeks” to combat the Zoom fatigue many remote workers were feeling. It also started offering an extra vacation day for employees who requested PTO. Top accounting firm PwC took a similar approach, giving a $250 bonus to any employee who requested 40 consecutive hours of vacation.
In workplaces where employers do encourage that work-life balance, Moss says employees may have to re-examine their relationship to the technology that made it possible to take work everywhere they go all those years ago.
“It’s almost like making vinyl cool again,” she says. “We need to make analog cool again."