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Technology and our work life balance

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Technology and our work life balance

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When it comes to technology and the allure of greater work/life balance, it seems to be something of a double edged sword.  On the one hand, various technologies have made it easier than ever before to work when we want, where we want.  Whilst this hasn’t really heralded a flexible working revolution, it has nevertheless seen flexible working grow (slowly) in popularity.

Of course, the flip side of this is that technology has made us permanently plugged into our work.  Whether it’s a smart phone or a tablet device, we can (and often do) check into emails and other work related things throughout the day, be that first thing in the morning or last thing at night.  We’re increasingly checking in whilst on holiday and over the weekend.  Switching off has never been harder.

An ongoing piece of research from the University of Cincinnati has outlined several strategies employees can use to better manage their work/life boundaries, including:

  • Collocation - this strategy tends to occur when we’re physically in one location, but cognitively engaged in various domains.  In other words, we might be doing both work and personal things from the office, or vice versa.
  • Distancing – distancing on the other hand sees a much stronger demarcation between domains.  It will see devices switched off when outside of their chosen domain, ie work smart phones will be off when at home
  • Crossing – crossing is, as you might expect, a combination of the two, but sees the individual use technology to help manage the transition between work and personal lives.  For instance, it might see an individual using a smart phone to access their emails on the commute home, thus allowing them to fully switch off when they step through the front door.

These initial findings emerged from the study of 33 working professionals in the Cincinnati area.  The next step for the research will be to quantitatively survey around 500 full-time employees about the effectiveness of using the aforementioned strategies, how often they use them, and their impact upon their work/life balance.

Of course, something the research doesn’t seem to touch on is the expectations of employers.  I wrote about some Cass Business School research at the end of last year that typified things nicely.  The research suggests that with the rise in mobile computing, we are now increasingly resembling the biopowered world of Foucalt, with work creeping into all elements of our lives, regulating, monitoring and monetizing everything we are and do – and we are seldom aware of it.

It goes on to suggest that the rise in knowledge work has seen bureaucracy replaced by what they term a biocracy.  This sees the individual aspects of each employee encouraged, with managers increasingly aiming to foster better performances by allowing employees to bring their personalities to work with them.  Life skills, communication and organisation skills, and emotional intelligence are now key.

Research from Kansas State University underlines the perils of too much work.  “We looked at the association between workaholism and physical and mental well-being,” said researcher Sarah Asebedo, a doctoral student at Kansas State University. “We found workaholics – defined by those working more than 50 hours per week – were more likely to have reduced physical well-being, measured by skipped meals. Also, we found that workaholism was associated with reduced mental well-being as measured by a self-reported depression score.”

To try and get to the bottom of why people felt the need to work such long hours, the researchers used Gary Becker’s Theory of Time Allocation.

“This theory suggests that the more money you make, the more likely you are to work more,”Asebedo said. “It looks at the cost of time as if it were a market good. If you are not engaged in work-related activities, then there is a cost to the alternative way in which time is spent. Even if you understand the negative consequences to workaholism, you may still be likely to continue working because the cost of not doing so becomes greater.”

It becomes a vicious circle, with those who work longer tending to prosper, thus earning more, which in turn makes it harder for them to not put in even more hours.  Flexible work, it seems, is nothing if not complicated.

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