Who is the boss, you or your gadget?

ALWAYS IN TOUCH Karen Riley-Grant uses her smartphone as she takes care of her daughter Margot, at home in El Grenada, California. NYT

Given the widespread adoption of smart phones, text messaging, video calling and social media, today’s professionals mean it when they brag about staying connected to work 24/7.

Technology allowed Karen Riley-Grant, a manager at Levi Strauss in San Francisco, to take care of some business with her New York publicist while she was in labour in the hospital last November.

“I had time on my hands,” she says, and “full strength on my phone — five bars.”
It once enabled Craig Wilson, an executive at Avaya in Toronto, to take his children to a Linkin Park concert and be able to duck out to finish a task for a client in Australia, he says, “without disruption to my family commitment or my work commitment.”

And it recently gave Perry Blacher, chief executive of the social investing firm Covestor, a way to participate in a board teleconference while attending a christening celebration at a pub in England.

But all of this amped-up productivity comes with a growing sense of unease. Too often, people find themselves with little time to concentrate and reflect on their work. Or to be truly present with their friends and family.

There’s a palpable sense “that home has invaded work and work has invaded home and the boundary is likely never to be restored,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Centre's Internet and American Life Project. “The new gadgetry,” he adds, “has really put this issue into much clearer focus.”

The phenomenon started with the rise of BlackBerrys and has snowballed with the use of more smartphones, social media and tablet computers. Employees are using their smartphones and other devices to connect with corporate e-mail, applications and data wherever they happen to be — whether at home, on the go or even on vacation.

Advantage

Now add the effects of the recent recession. Because jobs and promotion opportunities are scarce, many workers are worried that someone who is more connected and available could outclimb them on the corporate ladder, says Peggy Klaus, an executive coach in Berkeley, California.

“Even if you have a career that is pretty solid,” she says, there is the feeling that advancement requires being plugged in at all times.

But at what price?

Karen, who is 35 and director of global consumer marketing for the Dockers brand, has felt the stress of trying to stay constantly connected — not because of pressure from her bosses, she says, but her own fear.

“I love my job,” she says. “The decision to plug in or unplug is a personal one. My job is fast-paced and demanding. If I’m not paying attention during the off-hours, things could go south.”

But even before the birth of her second child last year, she recognised that she needed to power down to achieve the right work-life balance. So with the help of Peggy, she made a plan to take small steps: She let her co-workers know that she would be turning off her iPhone for a few hours on weeknights and weekend days, and completely on certain Friday nights.

She tries to communicate a need for balance to employees who report to her, too.
“I worry about the speed at which they are going,” she says, adding that she wants them to ‘shut down’ when needed, for the sake of their families and their health.

The conversation about what’s expected of workers ‘after hours’ is crucial to managing expectations, researchers and workplace specialists say. Wilson, 52, global director of strategic consulting for Avaya, a provider of business communications systems, says he is respectful of his colleagues who work in different countries and time zones.

“If I e-mail someone at 7 at night,” he said, “it’s not legitimate of me to expect a response that night or at 7 in the morning.”

To a large degree, how workers incorporate devices into their daily routines depends on the individual. Some people insist on keeping work and life concerns separate, while others integrate components of both and manage them together.

For example, Stephanie Marchesi of the marketing firm Fleishman-Hillard in New York developed a system that involves carrying four devices at all times: an iPhone and an iPad for family and social life and a BlackBerry and a laptop for work.

“I can pull out one and pull out the other and check on both aspects of my life,” she says.
Marchesi, 47, managing director and senior partner of global integrated marketing communications at the firm, says technology “allows me the flexibility I need to balance work life with personal life.”

She maintains separate e-mail addresses and calendars because her company can access her work e-mail and calendar.

“I want my personal life personal,” she says. “I have chosen to keep things separate. I don’t need my work to know when my son has a play date or dentist appointment. It’s not their business.”

Office on the move

On a typical day, she says, she is up early at her home in Darien, Connecticut, to make sure that both her children get off to school. She catches the 7 am train to Manhattan and immediately pulls out her internet-connected laptop and BlackBerry. For the next hour, it is as if she is in the office, she says: “When I am commuting, I have not disappeared.”

The same is true, she says, on the 5.57 pm train back home. Her only downtime is the 10 minutes it takes her to get to the station. In the evening, she allows time for dinner and family, but then she pulls out her laptop.

Occasionally, the routine varies — she might have to take a child to the doctor, or attend an after-school conference — but the fluidity remains. On weekends, she works on the laptop and checks her BlackBerry.

The entire routine “feels very natural,” Marchesi says. “I’m not a stressed-out person, nor am I this maniac. I am committed, connected and responsive.”

Alan Atwell doesn’t keep his work and personal life on separate devices, but he does try to ensure that his work life doesn’t hold his personal life hostage. Atwell, 44, national leader for tax process and technology at RSM McGladrey, an accounting and business consulting firm in Charlotte, North Carolina, tries to be accessible when he is away from work. But only to a point. A few weeks ago, for example, he was helping to coach his son’s basketball team, and an important text message beeped in. He says he was able to answer it quickly without disrupting practice.

“If something important comes up, if I need to step out, I can,” he says. “At the same time, I can wait if I am with my family or taking care of civic obligations. Generally, I try not to walk around staring at the phone. I do try to pick moments when I need to be present for whatever group I am interacting with.”

One upside of technology, of course, is that it enables people to be present even if they are not in the same room. On a recent trip to New York, Blacher, 37, of Covestor, pulled out his Sony Vaio and started a video chat with his two-year-old son in London.

“It’s really hard to be away,” he says. “If you didn’t have things like Skype, I don’t know how I’d do it.”

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