Feature/Summer 2008

What's your advice? 24/7 blog enter

As mobile technology allows us to be accessible to work on a 24/7 basis, declaring quitting time is becoming a difficult job.

By Carol Elliott

When Christina Glorioso rolls out of bed at 5:30 a.m., she’s already behind.

That’s because during the night, while Glorioso lies sleeping in her Tribeca loft, her BlackBerry and two cell phones are far from idle. They sit by her bedside like silent little personal assistants, tirelessly and diligently taking down the messages that come in, one after another, regardless of urgency, topic or sender. A directive from her boss in Los Angeles, a dinner invitation from a friend, spam—no matter. The devices never ask, “Can this wait?” It all goes in the queue.

As a result of their nighttime labors, Glorioso can be greeted in the morning by a mail bomb of more than 30 messages—sometimes many more. Before she arrives at her Times Square office, she’s looked through all of them and answered about half.

Glorioso (MBA ’99, ’95) is the vice president of sales and marketing partnerships for program enterprises at MTV Networks Music & Logo Group. Her day can move in a blur from one meeting to the next, with another 100 to 150 messages lodging in her BlackBerry in the meantime. And because her boss is on the West Coast, she’ll keep checking for messages through the evening until 10 p.m. or so, or until she safely can assume that he has left the office for the day.

“There are no spoken expectations, but I think that there are a lot of unspoken expectations,” says Glorioso. “Because you have a BlackBerry, people expect that you’re available.”

Glorioso is representative of a new age in work culture—the “always open” mode made possible by advances in mobile communications technology that conceivably allow a person to be connected to the office 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But just because you could be available, should you be? That’s a dilemma faced by millions of people every day as they perform a balancing act between their work load and personal life, set to the tune of pinging PDAs and vibrating cell phones.

In order to find out how 24/7 communications technology is redrawing the line between work and home life, we conducted an informal Web survey of the Mendoza College of Business alumni, receiving nearly 3,000 responses. The survey asked about their habits and feelings surrounding the use of communications technology, particularly in regard to how the technology affected the line between work and home life.

The picture that emerged from the survey was that for many people, these devices are not mere accessories. They are survival tools in a work-world no longer defined by time or place, but by the demands of global commerce and other cultural shifts. At the same time, as people have come to rely on mobile technology to function efficiently at work, the technology has created both opportunities and dilemmas in managing that delicate work/home balance. What the survey also showed is that there is a short supply of hard-and-fast answers on how to declare quitting time in a work-world that never closes.

“It’s always 8 a.m. somewhere”

Although a few survey respondents described getting rid of their BlackBerries or choosing not to have a cell phone, they were in the very small minority. Mobile communications usage—BlackBerries, cell phones, smart phones—has grown exponentially. Estimates by wireless industry group CTIA indicate that 81 percent of the U.S. population has access to wireless communications, up from just 34 percent in 2000. In a single month, users send nearly 29 billion text messages alone. In 2008, Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, gained 2.18 million subscribers in its March-ended fourth quarter, raising its total base to more than 14 million.

Mobile devices are ubiquitous, and what the survey made clear is that people rely heavily on them to get work done. The resulting round-the-clock accessibility is a consequence that goes with that.

Respondents strongly expressed that the use of electronic communications made them more effective workers. Fully 97 percent agreed with the statement, “I am more productive because of my electronic devices.” Ninety-one percent said that they feel more in control because the devices keep them better informed about work situations. They offered many, many examples of closing deals or averting company disasters on weekends because they had their cell phones and PDAs powered up and were able to respond to breaking developments.

“A customer ran out of inventory unexpectedly. We packed and shipped an overnight order that kept their line going,” wrote a respondent.

“I received a notice of an emergency motion on the weekend which allowed me to be prepared for the hearing on the subsequent Monday,” said another.

Further, 67 percent of the respondents said that their employers expect them to be available for work-related matters either all or most of the time. This spillover of work into personal time probably began in the 1970s, research suggests, when “work” became less defined in temporal or physical terms. Also, as women entered the workforce in large numbers, there came a wider recognition that work and personal life are very much interdependent.

But judging from the written comments, the rise of the global economy has had a strong impact on the definition of the workday, and as a result, the need to be available.

“One of my clients is located in eastern Europe, while I’m based in Chicago,” wrote one alum. “My primary contact was on vacation in Siberia, while I was on vacation in Ecuador. I got a call from my office about an issue while I was at the top of a volcano. Through cell phone and a laptop computer, we were able to come to a decision that allowed our respective teams to continue functioning in our absence, despite neither of us being on our own continents.”

This is not an extreme example from the survey, despite the fact it includes Siberia, Ecuador and a volcano. Many alums talked about working on one continent while their customers and offices are spread the world over. As another put it, “Global business means that it’s always 8 a.m. somewhere.”

A number of respondents also talked about today’s corporate culture requiring a strong focus on customer service. Responding to a client’s e-mail at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning seems to testify to the worker’s dedication. “I received an e-mail on my PDA about a customer having a fire at his business,” said a respondent. “Although it was a weekend, I drove out to the location and offered my company’s assistance right away. The prompt response solidified a relationship and helped them survive the situation without major complications.”

“Took care of a customer who needed an emergency order while I was at a ND football game,” wrote another. “Customer never forgot the fact that I was able to help him out of a jam during my personal time and keep his factory from shutting down.”

Technology and the home front

Work, then, doesn’t just follow a person home. It is holstered to his or her hip. The line between work and home life is more blurred than ever, and looks to be increasingly so, thanks to our devices.

The survey results painted a mixed picture of the impact of the technology on our personal lives. On one hand, 89 percent of respondents said that they liked the flexibility and convenience of being connected at all times. Some fully celebrate the fact that being at work no longer means being at the office. In fact, there is a new term—“moofers” (mobile out-of-office workers) used to describe those people who routinely conduct business on their PDAs while sitting in the airport lounge or with laptops from their table at Starbucks.

And a good many people with physical offices described using the technology to their advantage to extend their family time. Survey respondents talked of being able to monitor a situation from home via their laptops, rather than being tied to their desks, or taking an afternoon off for family activities because their offices could still reach them. “For example, my children have soccer practice at 6 p.m., but clients expect me to be accessible during this time,” said a respondent. “Without a BlackBerry, I would have to remain at the office. With the device, I can watch practice and still address client issues as they arise.”

But many of the examples pointed to the downside of being available—often told in the same breath when describing the upside.

“This weekend, while at church, I received a message from my boss with a very important communication that he wanted me to review before he sent it to numerous others that day,” wrote an alum. “There was a large omission that would have caused significant confusion, and by simply e-mailing him a response, this confusion was avoided.”

Herein is the two-edged sword of the 24/7 technology. It is hard to argue with saving the boss from a potentially costly omission, and yet, e-mailing in church may not be the most appropriate use of the time. Stories like this—answering queries from a sick bed or downloading contracts on vacation—show that once the communications portal is open between work and home life, it can be difficult to close, whether it is working to a person’s advantage or disadvantage.

Consider this finding from the survey: Sixty percent said they feel compelled to reply to business-related messages, no matter when they receive them. Outside the workday hours, 44 percent of survey respondents said they check their devices regularly, with another 33 percent checking occasionally. Only 2 percent said they didn’t check at all.

Academic research into how this open portal affects a person’s stress level is fairly thin. A study of the blurred boundaries between work and family life by Noelle Chesley, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, concluded that men and women who regularly use a cell phone or pager experience an increase in psychological distress and a decrease in family satisfaction. The reason is because the technology allows work-related messages to spill over into home life, and the “spillover” causes a distressing confusion of a person’s roles, according to Chesley’s study.

As an additional note, Chesley also found that working women suffer a double whammy here. “It looks like steady cell phone or pager use is providing another point of access that allows home worries to infiltrate work,” said Chesley. This means women are getting stressed out on both sides—work and home.

Matt Bloom, a management professor at the Mendoza College who studies work-life issues, said research suggests that people have less to give elsewhere when they devote more time and attention to work. Devices that make it harder to disengage from work may mean that people aren’t as available to family members as they think they are, even when at home.

Note these survey responses: “I was on vacation and took a business-related call that lasted for over 45 minutes. Family members were very upset with losing my attention as we were in a public place and they had to just sit and wait for me to get off the call.” “My wife has repeated on several occasions, ‘Do not answer that phone at the dinner table!’” “Every day, my wife hates it!”

Time to think

There were a few survey respondents who described changing jobs because they didn’t want to be on constant call to the office, or who deliberately got rid of their BlackBerries in order to prevent work from straying into their private time. But the larger consensus was that communications technology isn’t going to go away and the work demands on family time are only going to increase.

But rather than trying to do away with communications technology, the better course in balancing these demands seems to be figuring out how to manage it.

“Electronic communications devices are wonderful tools—as long as we don’t let them rule our lives,” wrote an alum. “The same rules of common courtesy that we had before cell phones should continue to apply. Instant communication does not imply priority communication.”

Sixty-two percent of survey respondents said there were times when they deliberately “unplugged” and turned off all their communication devices. More specifically, 83 percent unplugged during social or family occasions; 54 percent during vacations.

Jon Crutchfield (MBA ’97), the manager of Mendoza Educational Technology Services, declares all technology off-limits when his family takes their annual vacation at a Michigan lake cottage. Crutchfield otherwise keeps a smart phone and a two-way radio holstered to his belt, and operates his office computer with two monitors synchronized together so he can track 50-column spreadsheets. For someone so immersed in technology, unplugging is a meaningful act. “Technology tends to isolate people in their own activities,” he said.

“The best thing we can do is to set some boundaries to usage,” said Professor Bloom. He also pointed out that people are very bad at monitoring their own behavior, and very good at self-deceiving. As a result, they may not have the most accurate view of how well they are doing with managing their electronic devices. So he further advised, “Pick two or three people to give you feedback about your usage. Then listen to them.”

But truly managing our devices and the accessibility that comes along with them may take a more comprehensive effort than unplugging. David Levy, a computer science professor at the University of Washington’s Information School, has a strong concern that with all the time and attention devoted to responding to technology, reflective thought has been crowded out of our schedules. And reflective thought is what yields creativity and innovation.

“Without the ability to really look at our lives in a deeper way, we risk living very superficial lives,” said Levy. “The argument is at least as old as Socrates.”

There is a larger threat here as well. Levy said society is on a course with technology overuse that is similar to the path of the environmental movement. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring 46 years ago, warning of the consequences of unchecked urbanization and industrialization. With many consequences already upon us, only recently has the recognition grown that continuing in the same way will lead to vast economic and environmental upheaval.

Similarly, Levy argues that society will pay a price at some future point if it continues to encourage focus on “fast-time” or repetitive and routine thinking at the expense of intellectual, reflective thought. “Basically, what I’m saying is that our inner environment and our information environments are increasingly out of balance because without quiet time, time for reflection, we are less able to exercise, for example, our ethical abilities to their highest concern,” Levy said.

The answer isn’t as simple as turning off the cell phone, though. Levy points to a need for research and social activism to make people more aware of the problem, as well as to design physical environments that are more contemplative. Information practices, too, will need to take into account the need for space for thinking.

“We have the opportunity to figure out how to do this with the technology,” said Levy. “It’s not about pulling the plug. But we’ve been so focused on more-faster-better, we’ve cut out an entire dimension that is not only central to what we are as human beings, but central to doing creative work.”

 

Information Addiction?

 

As it turns out, the term “Crackberry” may not be entirely baseless, but one rooted in the deepest parts of our neurological makeup. Irving Biederman, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, finds the term fitting—and delightful.

“The habit of checking your BlackBerry may actually serve to elicit opioids in the brain’s cortex,” he said, explaining that such neural activity, by increasing dopamine levels, produces pleasure when a person “scores” new information, an activity evolutionarily essential to survival.

In other words, we are hard-wired to search out news so we can better act or react to circumstances, and communication devices feed the habit. “The devices allow people to indulge a system that has been in place for eons, which is that you want to acquire new but interpretative information,” Biederman said. “There’s no evidence that we ever reach a limit.”

He considers information-seeking the sign of a healthy mind. But, Biederman concedes, that probably does not extend to being glued to your iPhone during dinner. “It only becomes maladaptive if it interferes with something more important.”

—Carol Elliott is the managing editor of Notre Dame Business.

business.nd.edu/247blog

 

A sample of Survey responses:

 


 

 

 
© 2008 University of Notre Dame • Last Updated: June 3, 2008