man with phone

Handheld comms make for longer hours

New research shows that as a result in our increasing dependence on digital communications technology we are we are working ten days per year more than we used to. E&T investigates.

This is an article about mobile technology. I can hear the sound of readers settling back in their chairs as I type that; oh yes, the mobile technology article, how useful it is, the fact that we're all working smarter, the labour saving element of IT, how we're all enjoying better quality of life as a result.

Well, phooey to that.

I was probably one of the first journalists to write about mobile tech for a major publication. I had this briefing on how a hand-held organiser could be coupled with a mobile phone to allow you to pick up emails on the go. I well remember standing reverentially, coupling my mobile and my PDA together so they could mate through infrared, in the middle of a shopping centre in Croydon. I remember the stares even better.

This was early in the history of mobile tech of course, mid-1990s or so. Even then my instinct said that although I could see the benefit of being able to pick up messages while on the move, the individual who had previously been unable to pick up emails might actually have enjoyed the downtime - and maybe not called it downtime before a technologist told him or her that was what it was.

More devices followed that achieved the same thing without the inconvenience of infrared. The BlackBerry is the most famous, clearly, while many self-employed people, including me, secretly regard their iPhone as an emailer that plays music when you remember it can do so.

Workaholic Brits

All of which led to it being no surprise that research from Nectar Business is headlined 'Workaholic Brits just can't switch off', according to the release. Far from saving us time and bringing quality back to our lives, Nectar - the loyalty card people - have found that we're working on average an extra 10 days a year.

Some of the headline results are alarming for managers wanting to keep a workforce motivated and fresh. They include:

  • a fifth of people keep work phones on over weekends;
  • 79 per cent of workers haven't met half the people with whom they do business;
  • one-third of men turn their work phones off when they leave the office;
  • one in 20 people get over 100 emails a day;
  • twenty-four per cent of people feel stressed by this constant state of being on call;
  • 42 per cent of people say they meet colleagues less regularly due to email dependence;
  • 60 per cent - get this - now say they prefer to communicate by mail than face to face.

That's a lot of figures. However, some of the findings were positive - 71 per cent of people found email the best way to keep colleagues informed and 28 per cent thought it a useful tool for delegating. But that still leaves a quarter of respondents stressed.

James Mossman is a public relations man (not one of those tasked with pushing this research, so he speaks from no vested interests). He says he doesn't work out of hours but this has been the result of a deliberate decision. 'I have made the conscious decision to have two mobile phones,' he explains. 'The work one is the work email and business calls and the personal phone speaks for itself. It does mean having to pay for a phone when I don't really need to, but it does make life easier. I haven't changed my personal number for 12 years.'

Unlike many people, Mossman takes a proper break. 'The work BlackBerry will even be left at home when I go on holiday. I think you just need to start a job with that attitude. If you are heading off on holiday, do a proper handover and make sure everything can be taken care of by other members of the team. Not easy but more of a management style than anything else. You have to be a happy delegator and have confidence in your team.'

That's the clear view of the practitioner. It's worth looking at what some of the more theoretical types say about this as well. Tom McEwen is a senior lecturer at Edinburgh Napier's School of Computing and the current chair of the British Computer Society's 'Interaction Specialist Group', which of course specialises in how people interact with their machines. His view is instructive, particularly when it comes to the information overload issue.

So, some people are getting more than 100 emails a day? 'Not every email demands or deserves the same attention,' he points out. 'This is part of a bigger issue, working from home thanks to computers.'

He points to research from the turn of the century which stresses the importance of setting boundaries. 'It'll be different depending on whether you're employed or self-employed and how autonomous your role is.' This is an important point; if there's someone else in the office who can handle a query, or be seen to handle a query, then an individual out E F of hours is less likely to act on an email. Self-employed people, like me, who get an email while idly playing on the phone over the weekend, particularly if it's a commission coming in, will act on it immediately.'

Even more importantly, McEwan points to the changing nature of work given the changing devices on which we're receiving all this input. There's the so-called interruption cost. 'It's not as simple as multitasking, some estimate many minutes to recover focus,' he says. He also points to a paper from Richard Harper, now of Google and formerly from Microsoft, at HCI2009, which gives the impression that people are starting to use comms technologies to give the idea of presence and therefore influence when they're not around. He also makes the point that research indicates that different personalities and behaviours will make the same volume of email into a virtuous circle for some and a vicious one for others - these no doubt being the ones made anxious in the Nectar survey.

What 'type' are you?

The survey itself certainly points to people behaving differently depending on personality type. It's clearly not intended as a weighty academic work so the categories appear light-hearted but it's worth considering. It divides them into:

  • fussy filers: 46 per cent of people read and file all of their emails;
  • serial deleters: 34 per cent deal with unwanted mails by hitting the delete button;
  • hectic hoarders: Ten per cent concede their inbox is in complete disarray because they hold on to absolutely everything.

It's possible to draw a number of conclusions from the emergence of these 'types': one of these is that only just under half of the participant (Nectar spoke to 1,000 workers) are coping with the extended 'on' time the technology offers, or perhaps enforces.

McEwan offers a number of strategies for dealing with the overload from which many people seem to suffer. The 'Mark as Unread' function is vital, he says. 'Don't try to deal with anything other than the simplest stuff until you are back at a desk,' he says. 'Use folders - if people use their work mail for personal stuff, send it to the right place immediately so if it says 'Facebook' in the title then it won't block something else. When sending, too, people need to be sensitive to the recipient - if you know your mail is likely to be read on a small screen, don't write screeds.'

Time management

But is there a management problem, really? For all the complaints about mobile technology and how unscrupulous or even unwitting managers could use it to get free extra time out of employees there's another side.

One employer felt very strongly about this when approached: she felt there was a lot of give and take. 'Yes, I expect my colleagues to check their mails occasionally out of hours because it's the norm,' she says. 'But I also expect them to help themselves to office time to have a look at Facebook, use their work mobiles to check Twitter and probably send the odd note around when there's a damned puppy walking on its hind legs on YouTube.

'The balance has shifted but I don't think it's shifted one way, nor that it's out of kilter. And yes, if someone really insists I'll pay for part of their mobile bill - but maybe I should apportion their personal use of the Internet at work?'

McEwan concurs: 'It shouldn't matter when you do the work nowadays, but the work has to be reasonable. We have blurred work, professional, voluntary, social and personal lives in terms of how and where we get fulfilment - I'm not so sure 'work/life balance' means saying 'I'm off duty' for many of us!' (The author of this article would like to confess, albeit sheepishly, that he knew damned well McEwan was offering all of this comment in his own time.)

McEwan isn't the only academic to take note of the changing trends. Dr Tim Jordan is a reader in sociology at the Open University and notes that not only workers but just about everybody is involved in more than one communications channel at a time. In business terms he believes this is ultimately a hindrance to productivity. 'People are always 'in-between' different communication channels, often moving from one to the other without achieving anything in a particular channel,' he says, pointing to people having a quick look at Facebook while at work, finding nothing's happening there but convincing themselves they're doing something nonetheless.

'Society simply moved into this always-on culture with few existing skills to ensure focus amid so many calls on our attention. Being 'in-between' can then seem like productive activity when it is really movement between potentially productive activities.' Potentially is the operative word in this context: moving from Facebook to Twitter, checking LinkedIn and looking at a couple of Internet discussion boards which might be relevant to work but which may have no new content, will all take time but might achieve relatively little.

'Employers gain from this, as communication intrudes into what would previously have been non-working time of their employees,' Jordan continues. 'Even when away on holidays, people's devices ensure they are connected. At the same time, real productivity in the workplace can be undermined as people seem active when they are simply moving between different forms of communication.'

It would be wrong to try in a single article to come to any definitive answer to whether this technology dependency is a good or bad thing, and whether its consequent move into the home is actually damaging. It's probably something to be aware of rather than to fret about.

It's certainly a likely source of employee angst; surveys like the Nectar one will continue to point, quite accurately, to a lot of work taking place in someone's private time which would previously not have happened. A good manager will gently point out the benefits of the private stuff, the social networking and the online shopping, that's happening in the workplace to balance it out.

All the same, 17 years ago when I started working for myself I used to be 'offline' and having 'downtime' when I was en route to a meeting - no mobile phone on the train, no email, so I'd usually end up reading a book. I've got to ask - is it so wrong to miss that..?

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