Tackling unpaid digital labor

Last updated on 
August 26, 2020

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When asked how many hours you work a day, do you think of your official work hours? Or do you factor in all the fragments of work that exist outside of them? In our hyper-connected workplace, unpaid digital labor has become so normalized that the very fact we frequently work extra hours for no money often doesn’t even register.

Replying to emails after dinner, joining Zoom meetings at lunch, updating Slack first thing in the morning… most of us do these things on a daily basis, and we don’t get paid for them. As the boundaries between spaces and devices for work and rest continue to blur, we can’t keep ignoring unpaid digital labor. Here’s what you can do to effectively tackle yours.

What is unpaid digital labor?

Sometimes it seems that the more connected we are, the harder it becomes to build meaningful boundaries between our professional and personal lives. The days of leaving the office behind at five, going home, enjoying your evening and not thinking about work til the next morning are, for most of us, a distant memory... if we ever experienced that reality in the first place!

Today, work emails, apps and Slack notifications have found their way onto our personal phones and computers. Our devices have in a sense become digital shackles, bringing our work home with us, making us constantly available to our employers, creating a strange obligation to reply to late-night work messages, and making it all too easy to “quickly” amend a document in time for morning.

We may not think of it this way, but this is unpaid labor. If a factory worker or supermarket worker stays late, they get paid for it – and they also get the option to say “no” to doing extra time. But when you work in the digital realm – particularly in knowledge work – things are very different.

How big of a problem is it?

Part of the issue with unpaid digital labor is how pervasive it is: a recent study found that in 2018, UK workers put in two billion unpaid hours – an extra hour a day for each employee. Another US-based study found that 92% of people work regularly in the evenings and weekends, while 40% of people work beyond 10pm in the week. Clearly, this is not a case of a few people doing too much; almost all of us are.

Some workers might say they don’t mind not being paid for extra work here and there – that they’re happy to put in another hour each day to ensure success – but an hour a day soon adds up.  The true cost of unpaid digital labor also runs much deeper than not being paid for the work you do. We know how important it is to have quality rest – but downtime spent replying to emails, or just worrying that an “urgent” reply might suddenly ping, isn’t really downtime at all. In our current climate, when most of us are relying on digital communication more than ever, the problem looms even larger.

Replying to emails and making phone calls might not feel like labor in the same way that stacking shelves or working a forklift does, but this is all part of the problem. The insidious nature of unpaid digital labor means we have a tendency to minimize the issue, or to not recognize it at all. Consenting to unpaid digital labor ultimately means accepting the idea that the working day never truly ends. It means accepting that you’re happy to live in an “always on” mentality. It means underselling your value – that some work is too “insignificant” to be worth anything. Most of us probably don’t want to do these two things, so how can we address the problem?

Controlling and minimizing unpaid digital labor

📕 Proper documentation

One of the simplest and easiest ways to control unpaid digital labor is to make sure you actually track all your overtime. When you’re busy it can be hard to stay on top of all the extra hours, minutes and projects you’re working on – and small drips of work throughout an evening are difficult to accurately record manually. That’s why automatic solutions are so helpful here. Free of fiddly manual timers and note taking, automatic trackers accurately capture all the time you spend on pieces of work in the background for you. They produce a flawless record of all your work hours, ensuring nothing slips through the net. Even if you aren’t compensated for overtime, having this data helps you raise and address the issue, with irrefutable evidence to back up your claims.

Automatic work trackers can surface all unpaid digital labor

How to track overtime accurately

🏛 Cultural change

Workplace norms, expectations and behavior are all governed by a company’s culture, which managers and employees alike have the power to change. Refining and setting new standards, values and policies are a great place to start. France, Luxembourg, Spain, Italy, the Philippines and several other countries have already introduced “Right to disconnect” policies, which are commitments led by company management that provide security for employees to switch off after hours. These policies address the widespread expectation that employees need to be constantly available to their employers, regardless of time. Of course, policies actually need to held to account, and management have huge responsibility here – encouraging people to switch off when they’re home, leading by example, and not setting unhealthy precedents, like sending emails out of hours or while on leave.

💪🏾 Individual agency

To really cut down on unpaid digital labor, you can’t just rely on your company to make changes – you also need to be proactive and set your own boundaries. While it’s nice to feel like you can be flexible, being too flexible can lead to your boundaries crumbling away, and your health and wellbeing can be compromised – as well as those of your family. Studies suggest we don’t even need to check email after hours to feel the negative effects of this; just feeling constantly available can be enough to cause harm. The strictness of boundaries is completely up to you (outright email bans or  digital blackouts can cause huge stress and anxiety). Just make sure you have some healthy borders in place between you and your work – such as limiting the time you allot for communication each day, have set check-in times for email, blocking work notifications out of hours, and introducing “shut down routines” to psychologically close the door on your work day.

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💻 Recasting how we use tech

Most of us don’t plan to use our personal devices to do work – it just happens. This speaks to the passive and often unconscious way we use the technology in our life; letting information we haven’t actually sought out to dominate our attention. So a huge part of keeping work from encroaching on our private lives revolves around reclaiming our personal devices – making sure they remain personal digital spaces, not professional ones. That could mean deleting work apps or work email accounts from your phone, updating notification settings for specific apps, creating separate user accounts on your laptop for for work and personal use, and generally practising “digital minimalism”. Do whatever you can to keep a defined border between the two, remembering that you’re the one in control of your devices – not the other way around.

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