Web Working: Not a Niche

At WWD, we’ve long recognized that there are many types of web workers: though the stereotypical web worker may be the always-on-the-go, device-laden, “digital bedouin,” there are millions of others in home offices and cubicles who couldn’t do their job without constant internet use. The latest survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Networked Workers,” shows just how pervasive web work has become. It’s becoming clear that web work, by our expansive definition, is business as usual for many in the workplace – and that, as its growth expands, many of the issues on our agenda are becoming increasingly important.

The bottom-line number from this particular survey is simple: 62% of all employed American adults can be considered “networked workers” (Pew’s term) who use the internet or email at work. In fact, 27% of employed adults report that they use the internet “constantly” at work, with the heaviest internet users being government, educational, and non-profit workers, as well as professionals, managers, and executives.

A more significant finding is the extent to which this dependence on the internet is breaking down the traditional barriers between work and home. 14% of those employed adults also use the internet constantly at home> pew goes on to define a category of “Wired and Ready Workers” – the 96% of employed adults who make use of new communications technologies. Of these workers, 46% say these tools and technologies increase the demands that they work more hours, 49% say it’s harder to get away from work at home, and 22% even say they are expected to read and respond to emails when they are not at work. The inference is clear: the more you can work anywhere, the more your job is likely to demand that you do work from everywhere.

Despite this, people see benefits: 80% say they can do their job better, 73% say they share more with their co-workers, and 58% agree that they have more flexible working hours. Although it’s not explicitly listed by Pew as a benefit, it’s clear that the breakdown of the work/home barrier works both ways: 22% of workers report some online shopping at work, 33% read blogs, and 2% even write extracurricular blogs.

Overall, the Pew survey presents a picture of a nation slowly coming to grips with a wired reality. We’ve watched the clash between the busyness economy and the burst economy for quite a while; Pew’s numbers provide a snapshot of how this is playing out, regardless of how employers (and workers) might like it to end up. It seems clear that unless workers find ways to aggressively limit their work, they’ll be expected to deliver unlimited work – and will use this as as opportunity to stretch the limits of acceptable work behavior.