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Our Working Lives Out of Balance

April 10, 2012

You wake up one morning and check your e-mail. Your co-worker sent you a work-related e-mail on a Friday night. You check the time on the e-mail: 2 AM that morning. That’s when you notice the message at the end of the e-mail: “Sent from my iPhone.” You wonder what your co-worker might have been doing when she sent the e-mail. Was she sitting in the back of a cab on her way home after a long night of partying? Then you wonder why she sent the e-mail at all; couldn’t it have waited until Monday?

Technology the Culprit?

New technologies have forever blurred the separation between work and home life. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook (and now a very rich woman), recently said that “…there’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s work, and there’s life, and there’s no balance.” There can be no balance because the two are now inextricably linked. Sandberg comes tantalizingly close to understanding the problem: “I feel guilty when my son says, ‘Mommy, put down the BlackBerry, talk to me’ and that happens far too much.” The problem isn’t the new workplace, or a woman’s place in it (most of the comments have focused on Sandberg’s remarks about gender roles – not a battle I’ll be wading into on this blog), but the technology we use to do our work.

An office outside the office.

Constant connectivity, the Holy Grail of modern mobile technologies, has transformed the modern workplace. Employees are now always on-call. In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, African entrepreneur Ndubuisi Ekekwe writes that when his African-based start-up began offering 24/7 business engagement, employee complaints went up and team morale went down. His employees simply burned out. Without a chance to emotionally recharge and retire into a separate, non-work space, workers stagnate. Having time off is extremely important, regardless of one’s job or industry.

But is technology really responsible for this shift? This statement is more complicated than it may at first appear. Technologies such as telephone networks, fax machines, and the Internet have undeniably improved productivity and increased industry performance. However, the very recent development of smartphones (defined as phones that provide access to e-mail) and the ubiquity of communication technology have dramatically altered the work-home balance. Smartphones mean that employees are always on-call. There is an expectation that they can and will respond to work requests even when they are at home. Fair or not, employees are now expected to take work home with them.

Is There a Solution?

The obvious solution is to turn off your smartphone, or get rid of it altogether. However, this is not a possibility for many people. Some could even lose their jobs if they switched off their phones. The likelihood of people throwing out their smartphones is almost zero. There has to be a better way.

Employers themselves must realize that shorter work weeks, less work-related stress at home, and adequate time off will increase worker productivity. The 40-hour work week existed for one reason: longer work hours are counterproductive and even dangerous. The research on this isn’t new – it stretches back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Today’s employers must recognize the physical and psychological toll of the longer work week. Until employers take concerted action on this issue, the problem will persist.

Your smartphone is not the problem. The culture that has sprung up around it, a culture that glorifies long working hours, the dissolution of the work-home balance, and constant connectivity, exacerbates a problem that employers are only too willing to accommodate. Blaming technology takes responsibility away from both employees and employers. The smartphone makes for a convenient scapegoat. Only, by focusing on the smartphone, we ignore the role of personal responsibility. We control when and how often we use our smartphones. We make decisions about our work-life balance, not our smartphone, and not even our employer. It’s become a tired refrain on this blog, but ultimately, you (like Sheryl Sandberg) are the only one responsible for maintaining a work-life balance. These are your choices and decisions, and you must abide by their consequences.


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