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Achieving work-life balance in a connected world

 

Cell phones, laptops, high-speed Internet connections, and air cards. Today’s technology keeps people connected like never before. Parents can call friends while watching their children play soccer, text from the grocery store to see if the family needs more eggs or milk, or check e-mail while on vacation. At the same time, employees are just a call or click away from the office. The question becomes, does this connectivity improve or disrupt the work-life balance?

Bradley business administration professors Chuck Stoner, Matt McGowan, and Paul Stephens recently explored this question. Their findings were published in the January–February 2009 issue of Business Horizons, the journal of the Kelley Business School at Indiana University. The professors met with two focus groups of managers and professionals, male and female, all under the age of 45. In all, 146 people were involved in the study.

“The intuitive assumption is that this technology is freeing, but that’s not necessarily the case,” says Stephens, noting many employees feel the work-life balance scales are tipping further and further toward work.

Advances in technology have resulted in a rapid increase in work connectivity over the past decade. McGowan comments, “One of the big changes is information systems at companies are now very accessible outside the company boundaries. And it’s not just e-mail that’s
become accessible.”

At first glance, one would think these technologies allow professionals to better juggle work and personal life. However, many employees feel their companies support work-connecting technologies, not so their employees can benefit from a better life balance, but rather so that work is ever-present. Many feel an unspoken expectation to check their laptops and cell phones for messages that, without the work-related technologies, would have waited until the next day.

Stephens notes that technology does not inherently lead to longer hours of work, but he says, “People are putting assumptions on themselves. It’s not that employers are saying their people have to do work at home, but employees assume they do. When bosses send e-mails at 9 p.m., do they expect employees to respond that night? Companies need to be explicit about their expectations."

Dr. Charles Stoner (left), Dr. Paul Stephens (center), and Dr. Matt McGowan have studied the impact today’s technology has on work-life balance.

Beyond that, Stoner says, “The individual needs to take control and establish boundaries.” He admits that’s not as easy as it may sound. “It’s hard to have the discussion saying you’re not going to check e-mail past 6 p.m. when you know everyone else is.”

While this connectivity could allow employees to tele-commute, “face time” is considered important among many aspiring professionals. “The imperative seems to be the one with the last light on in the building is the one who gets ahead,” Stephens comments. Some like the competitive advantage that comes with working longer hours, and work-connecting technologies make that easier on evenings and weekends. Being online can be addictive, and some find themselves signing on to their work e-mail at
odd hours, just to make sure they haven’t missed something. For others, work is a solace from personal life, and connectivity allows an escape even when they are home.

Stoner observes, “We have known for the last 35 years that people are working far more than they used to—an average of 199 more hours per year in managerial positions. That’s five weeks’ worth of work.”

He adds, “The trend of working more is counter to every other industrialized country
in the world. With downsizing, employees are asked to do more with less. It would be interesting to see what impact work-connecting technologies have had on managers in Europe.”

In fact, as upper executives at many U.S. companies negotiate contracts, they are fore-going salaries for a better work-life balance, such as limiting travel. As individuals strive
to achieve that balance, the professors recommend open communication at home, including establishing times when work is not allowed to intrude. For example, no cell calls, text messages, or e-mails during dinner time can be a start. They say individuals must set their own boundaries regarding when and how much they will use work-connecting technology during personal time.

The professors conclude that technology should moderate, not exacerbate, time pressures. Although work-connecting technologies will never eliminate the varied pressures of upward mobility, when properly structured, they can and should improve the work-life balance of today’s professionals.