Sunday 25 September 2016

Adrian Weckler: Are we being dragged into a world where we're always on?

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

‘Much of what is coming down the tracks in work software aims to integrate our work and home lives more, not less. And Irish people are split down the middle on whether this sounds enabling or threatening — half of us resent having to answer office email at home, while the other half thinks it’s no problem...’
‘Much of what is coming down the tracks in work software aims to integrate our work and home lives more, not less. And Irish people are split down the middle on whether this sounds enabling or threatening — half of us resent having to answer office email at home, while the other half thinks it’s no problem...’

Are smartphones, laptops and messaging systems a blessing or a burden in your work life?

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Do you cheerfully (or reluctantly) check your Slack, Gmail or Outlook early in the morning? At night in bed? At weekends?

At the wedding of a friend recently, the table I was seated at got into a heated debate about this. At issue was whether or not we should answer work-related phone calls and messages outside office hours.

"I turn off my work phone at 5.30 every day," said a woman seated next to me. "I'm not paid to work after that so I don't see why I should."

Murmurs of agreement echoed around the table.

I was intrigued. What if something came up, I asked? Wasn't there a danger that an opportunity or a solution to a problem might fall by the wayside for want of a one-line response to an important email or a text message?

"But why is that your problem?" she replied. "You've done your job for the day, haven't you? We're being trapped by all this new technology. We have to put our foot down and say no."

This lady's work-free evening zones may not last much longer. Having spent the last week in San Francisco at Microsoft's Build conference (see page 5), much of what is coming down the tracks in our work software aims to integrate our work and home lives more, not less.

Cars will soon remind us of appointments from our office calendars. Phones will shortly become extensions of our work PCs. And a combination of artificial intelligence and voice control technology will mean that workers will soon need to be in contactable control more, not less, irrespective of their profession.

Irish people are split down the middle on whether this sounds enabling or threatening. According to the most recent Qualtrics survey on the matter, half of us resent having to answer office email at home, while the other half thinks it's no problem.

There are even established terms used to tell the two groups apart.

'Integrators' embrace a constant flow of work-related nudges throughout the whole day while 'reactors' go along with it reluctantly. 'Separators', a third breed, successfully draw strict lines between home and the office and stay out of any ill-feeling.

The terms were coined by the US management professor and author, Ellen Kossek.

"Psychologically, integrators mix work and personal life in terms of their day-to-day thoughts, emotions and energy," she says. "They have difficulty drawing lines between work and family."

Personally, I know lots of these people. Many of them are in the tech business or in startups. But not all are. Many simply prefer a flexible schedule to a regimented one.

"The idea is not that you need to work long hours," Evernote's executive chairman, Phil Libin, once said to me. "The main idea is that your job is the main thing that you identify with. It's your life's work, if you look at it that way."

Not everyone takes it to this level. But lots of people now find fluidity preferable to iron-clad nine-to-five days.

A Dublin-based marketing manager I know leaves work at 2pm each day to collect her kids from school. At 8pm, after an afternoon and early evening spent with them, she opens her work laptop. She rarely finishes before 11pm.

For some people this sounds dystopian. But for others, it sounds like flexible freedom.

"When I hear 'boundaries,' I hear 'restrictive and inflexible'," Kossek quotes one of her integrator case studies as saying. "Yes, there are many times I have been cooking dinner and I take a work call. I don't view it as a hassle, I see it as a benefit of flexibility. I am able to go out to lunch with a friend in the neighbourhood and then work as late into the evening as I need to."

Not all so-called 'integrators' relish this flexibility.

"I basically have to work all the time," says another of Kossek's case studies in her book. "It's long hours, weekends, and I'm available by phone 24/7. When I'm at home, I try not to think about work, but if something goes wrong and causes downtime, I end up having to deal with some personal things during work time, even though I'd rather keep them separate."

Will the next wave of office technology drag us all closer to this 'always on' scenario?

Ambitious executives and career climbers have always agreed to be contactable outside work hours. Doctors and farmers frequently do likewise. The same could even be said of teachers, many of whom regard out-of-hours preparation and extra-curricular activities as being a core requirement of making their role useful.

So what about the rest of us? Will new integrated generations of Microsoft Office, allied with ever-soaring productivity targets, make reluctant 'integrators' out of previously satisfied 'separators'? Will the lady at my friend's wedding eventually feel that she has to keep her office mobile phone on after 5.30pm?

The answer is likely to be yes. So if you currently switch off all systems in the evenings and at weekends, enjoy it while it lasts.

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