Separating work and life: Are you technologically tethered to your workplace?

Aside

If you own a smartphone, the chances are that you have used it in the last hour. For many of us, our smartphone is our lifeline to the outside world, whether it is social media, the news, games, or keeping up with e-mail. The literature on mobile e-mail reveals a vigorous debate raging between proponents of the device’s efficiency and functionality, while detractors highlight the ways in which it can take over the user’s life and even enslave him/her. Others have taken a more measured approach and discussed the technology both in terms of its positives and its negatives. As such, the scholars agree that smartphones or “mobile e-mail,” allow users to be always on, anywhere, and at any time (AAA). These AAA qualities enable users to be more productive and balance out their e-mail workload by making use of spare moments. However, because mobile e-mail is able to penetrate the micro moments of users’ lives, the technology makes it possible for users to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The question is, is this a bad thing?

One researcher found that although participants would say they felt BlackBerrys were a positive force in their lives, she concluded “the very acts that define balance for BlackBerry users are clear signals of imbalance to those around them, resulting in strong opposition to the devices from non-users.” This opposition from non-users has been noted in the popular press, with terms like “BlackBerry orphans,” “BlackBerry widows,” and smartphone-induced “family feuds” appearing more frequently. Smartphones have become so successful because they can change any place into a workplace, which is exactly why there are so reviled by those who are stuck watching the back of a phone at dinner, or some other social interaction in which the user is “absently present.”

Additionally, there are negative health consequences for this “technologically tethered” worker because (s)he is is unable to “switch off.” As researchers have noted, smartphones enable uncompensated, supplementary work and so rather than reducing work-home conflict and increasing job control, they actually have the opposite effect. Workers’ inability to switch off may now lead to increased stress and possible burnout. Furthermore, the use of smartphones may negatively affect an employee’s coping mechanisms through the removal of perceived controls of workload and work boundaries. Researchers have thus concluded that the ability to communicate and work anytime, anywhere has led to many workers being unable to maintain a healthy separation between their work and personal lives. As such, negative individual and organizational outcomes may be expected in work environments where workers are “technologically tethered” – be it by smartphones, in particular, or e-mail, in general.

In my own research, I found that those teachers and administrators who used a smartphone for work purposes struggled to maintain a healthy separation between their professional and personal lives. In addition to balancing work and personal commitments, one question that remains unanswered is the cost of making work decisions through e-mail outside of a work context. Are the decisions in some way impacted by the lack of work context? What are the consequences of these decisions? One of my study’s recommendations was that organizations need to develop policies, or guidelines for the changes that e-mail and smartphones have brought to the workplace. While all organizations have Acceptable Use Policies for the Internet and e-mail, very few (if any!) have Philosophy of Use Policies (e.g. what is/is not appropriate for e-mail communication, what are acceptable response times, and what is the expected availability of users?).

If you are interested in Dr. Jordan’s research on e-mail and organizational communication, please feel free to contact him at jamesedwardjordan@gmail.com

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