Mobile Work Force Struggles to Find Work-Life Balance

Many employees already experience the disappearing line between work and personal lives in the 21st century.

by / June 16, 2010
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There is almost nothing stopping us from working virtually anywhere. We have the hardware, software and connectivity to be a fully mobile work force. Consider this:

  • We communicate seamlessly and wirelessly over the Internet, through secure virtual private networks.
  • Communications tools abound for e-mail, instant messaging, video/teleconferencing and social networking. 
  • We have laptops, smartphones and tablets to take everywhere we go. 
  • Cloud computing, with applications and storage available on demand, is quickly emerging as the new norm. 
  • We have near-ubiquitous access to information and applications through systems that are Web enabled and often put neatly into corporate portals for easy navigation and consumption.

There are many benefits to reap as flexible work arrangements like telecommuting become popular options for employees. These arrangements cut commuting expenses, reduce car emissions, help employees focus on key projects, increase work options for caregivers and the disabled, expand business continuity options, and so on.

But the flip side to the convenience of being able to work from anywhere is that we're constantly connected, or as some say, tethered to the office. In many cases, that's driving an expectation that employees will be available 24/7.

The net result of ubiquitous connectivity is a double-edged sword - the benefits of working from anywhere (spatial liberty) are in a sense paid back by employees in terms of being "on call" anytime - and all the time (temporal servitude).

While many people enjoy the convenience and added productivity of being connected anytime, anywhere, some have begun to feel that the work-life balance may be getting out of tilt with cell phones ringing during their kids' school playtime and birthday parties, and "critical" e-mail coming in late at night, and on weekends and holidays. Many workers struggle with deciding whether to take their BlackBerry with them on vacation - worried about how they will be perceived or how much work will accumulate if they go away without their work "accessories."

There are two primary causes of the disappearing line between work and personal life:

  • The first is that the professional bar is constantly being raised due to global competition, the rapid pace of change and the pressure on organizations to increase productivity, revenue, profit, market share and stock prices.
  • The second is that workers are committed to the mission, ambitious in their careers, fearful of losing their jobs, and obsessed with the latest and greatest technology enablers. Some are even addicted to work and the "high" they get from it.

Whatever the reason, we're becoming a nation where work and personal life are enmeshed. With the technology enabling, in a sense encouraging, and even confusing the intersection of the two worlds, the demarcation line is not only all but gone, but now is beginning to overlap. For example, people are working from home on their own time and doing personal things (as permitted) from work "on company time." One example of the latter case is organizations permitting certain limited personal computer usage and social media access from the office.

In response to these trends, Generation Y has taken up the banner demanding greater work-life balance, and even doing so in lieu of compensation or other benefits.

I believe that to keep the work force productive, motivated and fully charged over the long term, we cannot confuse the ability to work from anywhere with the requirement to work always. People need to work and want to live, and while it's beneficial to give added flexibilities to the work force through technology, we should be mindful to give our people the time and space to refresh, re-energize and remember why they're doing all the hard work.

By balancing the possibilities enabled by new technology with the necessities of looking after our people, we can achieve a more motivated, innovative and productive work force than ever.

By deploying mobile solutions to our work force, we can enable them to work ever more flexibly in terms of time and space. The key is to develop "trust but verify" mechanisms so that organizations and employees don't abuse technology privileges.

From the organization's perspective, we must ensure that employees are working when they should be and not taking advantage of being out of sight, out of mind to goof off. Similarly from the employee's perspective, we must protect their personal time, so they aren't required to be "always on" just because they technically can be.

There are many mechanisms protecting the organization and its personnel, including business and labor laws and regulations, telework policies and agreements, work-monitoring tools, and so on, but one of the most important in my opinion, is the measurement of employee contribution not based solely on time, but on results for the organization and its stakeholders.

Technology enables us to work anywhere and anytime, but we should judge its success not by whether people are connected in the short term (morning, noon and night), but by the long-term ability to stay focused, productive and balanced in their work and personal lives.

Andy Blumenthal is the CTO of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of his agency.


Andy Blumenthal Contributing Writer

Andy Blumenthal is a division chief at the U.S. State Department. He was previously chief technology officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A regular speaker and published author, Blumenthal blogs at User-Centric Enterprise Architecture and The Total CIO. These are his personal views and do not represent those of his agency.