Your smart phone isn't your friend. It's the enemy, keeping you chained to work in the 21st century sweatshop that is the daily reality for many executives, managers and professionals. The flexibility it gives you is deceptive, an excuse for the organization you toil for not to be more efficient and respectful of your time.
That's the finding of Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist based in San Diego with the Center for Creative Leadership, who authored a recent report, Always On, which catalogues the level of our enslavement and self-deception. The report is based on a survey of 483 executives, managers and professionals, supplemented by interviews to dig deeper.
She found that 78 per cent of those surveyed used smartphones to enable flexible work, and on average they were connected to work 72 hours a week – 13.5 hours each day, and a further five hours over the weekend. That is 67 per cent more than the average work week chronicled by the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics and 44 per cent more than the average work week of about 50 hours picked up in a worldwide survey of leaders by her organization.
"While 72 hours a week sounds like a lot (and is), it sounds even worse when you look at the work week. If someone is connected to work 13.5 hours a day and sleeps about 7.5 hours a night (the amount recommended by scientists to manage stress most effectively), that leaves three hours a day Monday to Friday to do everything else they need to do. Do chores around their home. Exercise. Spend time with family. Prepare meals. Help their children with homework. Shower. Relax?" she writes in her report.
Interestingly, those who use smartphones for flexible work are connected to their workplace for more hours than those who don't. In her sample, 60 per cent of the smartphone users work between 13.5 and 18.5 hours a day, while only 29 per cent of those who do not use a smartphone to enable flexibility are connected with work that many hours on average.
It's assumed that some of that work at home is compensated for by time in the office spent on personal affairs. But her survey found there was no difference between the two groups in taking time at work for personal tasks, with about 89 per cent of each group indicating they did. "I was surprised," she says in an interview. "So, we're all doing things for home at work."
She found the results of the survey and her interview "shocking," as it showed people getting up at 5:30 a.m. to deal with e-mails and not shutting down until 10:30 or 11:00 p.m., with steady bouts of e-mail between. "It's constant. Even if they take an hour off e-mail for dinner they know the e-mail is there," she says.
And the pressure is often coming from on top: "Bosses make comments if they don't respond to e-mail quickly. It's a conditioned response. If you get in trouble the next day, you will learn to respond to e-mail and phone calls immediately."
At the same time, she found that people didn't want to give up their smartphones. "As much as it annoyed them, it also released them," she says. They would rather fix an issue immediately – even when on vacation – than deal with it, compounded, later.
At the same time, she found those people feel the real problem is organizational inefficiencies that are masked and enabled by the flexibility the smartphone allows. "In the past (that not-too-long-ago time when organizations had some difficulty finding you after you had gone home) organizations had an interest in ensuring that a professional's time in the office was used relatively efficiently because that time was restricted. Yes, time was still wasted, but the organization paid the price for inefficiency, not the individual. People were issued pencils rather than smartphones, and when they put the pencils down and left the office they were (mostly) done for the day," she writes.
Those inefficiencies come in three types:
Herding Cats: Too many people are involved in decision-making, and goals and decisions are constantly being changed. When executives change their mind abruptly, they know people will stay late to make it work.
Poor process: People are plagued by unnecessary e-mails, poor project planning, unnecessary and poorly planned meetings. One executive told her about being forced to attend a meeting to plan a meeting about planning meetings.
Inadequate infrastructure: Slow computers and outmoded technology systems are not addressed. One person calculated half an hour a day was wasted by his aged computer's slowness, but management declined to buy a new one – after all, he just stayed late to compensate.
"The people I interviewed seemed despondent. They didn't see a way to fix the problem as the organization doesn't have any compelling reason to act," she says. Norms could be established discouraging e-mails and phone calls in certain designated times, but most organizations avoid such policies.
Meanwhile, people, year by year, are working longer and longer. "I see more people endlessly tired as they don't have any space from work," she says. But she adds: "I don't have a good solution. I don't even have a bad solution."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter