Constant Connection: What’s the Human Toll?

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There’s no question — today’s technology is marvelous in its potential for business communications, freeing people to work from home, on the road, or even in the air. But are we using the technology, or is the technology using us?

Let’s start by looking at the promise of technology. Our cell phones, for instance, keep us constantly in touch for voice conversations, and now they often support e-mail and even limited Web browsing. Notebook computers are now shipping with wireless antennas built in, and handheld products like the Palm device from Palm Inc. or the BlackBerry unit from Research In Motion Ltd. let sophisticated communications capabilities literally ride in a pocket.

That means, virtually wherever we go, whenever it is — we can be in touch with our customers, partners, suppliers, bosses and employees. Likewise, they can be in touch with us — wherever, whenever that happens to be.

Some computer vendors have run ads showing people equipped with notebooks and mobile devices lounging in various exotic locales. Of course, anyone’s who’s tried it can probably testify to the difficult of reading a computer screen in bright sunlight. But practicality aside, the intended message is: With our products, you can now do your work from wherever you want. However here’s the sub-text: “Wherever you are; you can and will do your work.”

But do you really want to be advising employees or placating superiors when you’re holidaying at the beach?

Once upon a time, going to “work” for many white-collar types meant heading off to an office for a vaguely 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.-type workday. Back then, there was a fairly clear division between work time and personal time. But now for many of us, thanks to the enabling power of our communications technology, such concepts as workplace and work hours have become virtually irrelevant. “Going to work” may require no more than answering the cell phone tied to our belts or responding to the beep of an e-mail from our pockets.

Some social observers have linked a rising degree of employee stress directly to the relentless communications capability enabled by computing and communications technologies. Arthur Kroker, a professor of political science at Concordia University in Montreal and editor of the CTHEORY ( newsletter refers to “the intensification of the work experience and the lengthening of its duration.” He says: “No one has a respite. There’s a real degree of frustration and work stress.”

Of course scoffers are abundant and quick to point out the “off” button on various communications products. “Just because something is available doesn’t mean people have to be slaves to it,” says Mark Guibert, director of marketing for Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion.

The reality is generally more complicated than that, thanks to corporate expectations and competitive pressures. Because when faced with a lost customer, contract or opportunity, not every boss is tremendously supportive of the worker who says: “Sorry, it was 5:02 pm, so I turned off my cell phone/pager/handheld to enjoy my personal time.” (Particularly when the company has paid for these communications technologies expressly to enhance competitive advantage.)

Think about the cellular telephone, for instance. It proves itself great for productivity, because it means a businessperson can be stay in touch anywhere, anytime. And yet, the technology has a bias towards making that person constantly reachable.

Of note, communication theorists like Marshall McLuhan or Neil Postman have explored the idea that every technology has inherent biases towards how it will ultimately be used. And to quote Postman: “"What will a new technology do?’ is no more important than the question,What will a new technology undo?’”

For many business people (and their families, not incidentally) communications technologies can “undo” the idea of personal or family time, or at least make it secondary to work time.

In an ideal world, corporations would evaluate the possible stresses of over-connectedness and draft policies accordingly, encouraging people to regularly unplug.

But more realistically, it will be up to the individual to personally enforce a balance of technology connection and “off time” in their lives.

Consider: If technology makes your work constantly accessible; are you constantly accessible to your work? Is that what you really want?

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