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What work? What life? 26 August, 2006

Posted by Jay Ball in mobile.
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Another day, another work:life study.

According to some research for headhunters Korn/Ferry International, 80% of executives are always connected to their work – whether through mobiles, PDAs, laptops or whatever. And 77% of these believe that the technology behind all this enhances their work:life balance. The study covered 2,300 executives in 75 countries (which when you do the maths is just over 30 per country – so not the most robust sample ever).

Sadly I don’t have the breakdowns per country but our experience at Banner has shown that these attitudes vary radically by geography. In research we’ve done over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a vast range of results from enthusiasm in the US and UK through to outright rejection of the idea in Germany (and Italians simply find the devices too ugly to contemplate).

In a related piece of news, Rutgers University has questioned whether employers may be legally liable for their employees’ crackberry addictions. Gayle Porter, associate professor of management at Rutgers has been working on a study that examines the impact of this technology on workers’ lives and which looks at the employer’s responsibilities for protecting them. A flavour:

“There are costs attached to excessive work due to technology,” says Porter. “Information and communication technology (ICT) addiction has been treated by policy makers as a kind of elephant in the room – everyone sees it, but no one wants to acknowledge it directly. Owing to vested interests of the employers and the ICT industry, signs of possible addiction – excess use of ICT and related stress illnesses – are often ignored.”

On a basic level, I’d question whether this is some kind of jumbling of cause and effect – the employee works too much so it must be the technology that’s causing it. Porter goes on:

“Employers rightfully provide programs to help workers with chemical or substance addictions…Addiction to technology can be equally damaging to the mental health of the worker.”

Are employees really addicted to the technology? I’m not so sure. They may be addicted to the experience of being in control. They may covet the feeling of elevated self-esteem (look Ma, I’ve made it, I’ve got a BlackBerry!). But equating this with a substance addiction feels wrong-headed.

Over the years, I’ve sat behind the glass of many focus groups and have talked to the kinds of people both these studies are referring to. For the most part, they are not the air-punching go-getters of the first study, nor the hopeless addicts of the second. They are by and large pragmatic people who use the technology at hand (quite literally) to navigate the world around them. They often see using these devices as a way of using dead time better, getting out of the office earlier, seeing more of their kids.

Of course there are some toxic companies who are happy to overwork their employees. And yes, crackberries (of all makes) are one more way of doing this. But the symptom is not the cause.

Work:life balance, I believe, is largely a fallacy. It sets up a way of thinking that’s at odds with how many of us in information work experience our days. Work is life. Likewise, life is work. Today, it’s less about balancing and more about blending. Progressive companies realise this and hand over the tools for employees to blend it the best they can.

I’m writing this at home on a Saturday night. But the same technology allows me to take my daughter to school at least once a week, it means I can respond to my team when they need me and, of course, I can always find the off button.

Good night.

Sources: Reuters, Rutgers (via CrunchGear)

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