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Telecommuting’s curse: the 24-hour workday

Portable devices allow Jamie Reid of A.P. Reid Insurance to conduct business anywhere. But such flexibility comes with a danger. ‘My workday can become pretty much 24 hours if I let it,’ he says.

PAUL DARROW/The Globe and Mail

Jamie Reid is getting so used to blending his work and personal life using technology that when he booked a spa treatment as a Valentine's Day gift for his wife, he told her about it by posting the appointment on her online business calendar.

The chief executive officer of Halifax-based A.P. Reid Insurance Stores oversees a business with 12 locations across Nova Scotia and has customers throughout the country. He often keeps in touch with them by e-mail and text rather than travelling for face-to-face meetings.

But it keeps him busy. "My workday can become pretty much 24 hours if I let it," he says.

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Handling much of it on portable devices gives him the flexibility to get out of the office to take his 13-year-old son to soccer practice four days a week, but it also lets the work follow him. "Sitting in the stands I'll often be dealing with proposals on a smartphone," he says.

The proliferation of powerful mobile devices means that the future will include more blurring between personal and work time, the experts say. That's giving people more flexibility in scheduling work around their personal commitments, but it also carries a risk of never being able to shut off from work mode.

"It's becoming so possible to integrate our work with everything we do that in the future, we'll need a new way to describe it," says Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute for the Family in Ottawa. "Where once we talked about work-life balance, now we talk about blending work and life using portable devices wherever we are."

And most Canadians under 25 have never known a time when they didn't have a device they could use for both work and personal messages wherever they are, she adds. "They just talk about life."

According to an Ipsos Reid study done in January, working Canadians believe their personal and work lives are growing increasingly intertwined. As a result, 70 per cent of Canadian parents say they depend on technology such as smartphones and cloud services to connect with family and office to stay on top of their hectic schedules. It also found 78 per cent believe that technology allows their families to stay better organized.

"I think it's just a natural evolution based on what we now understand about work, and what's available to people to get things done in multiple places, so I think in general that's all for the best," Ms. Spinks says.

But this raises the spectre of a future in which people could stay plugged in to their work all the time, Ms. Spinks says. "If you didn't set limits, no one will tell you when work's done."

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Norma Tombari, the director of global diversity for Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto, is seeing both sides of the issue. Mobile devices have allowed her to work when she feels most productive.

"I'm a morning person, so I can come in early to the office and leave earlier, or I can start the day at home if the weather is bad," she says.

Her responsibilities include regular commutes between the Toronto and Montreal offices, and she has found it's convenient to work in the airport waiting for planes or taking a train using WiFi connections.

But there's a downside to the flexibility: "I've found I have to have the discipline to schedule in breaks even in the middle of the day. If I don't take personal time that's a break from work, I find I'm less creative," she says.

That's the message of David Posen, a stress specialist in Oakville, Ont., in his new new book Is Work Killing You?

"I've taken to asking the question in my seminars, 'Where are you when you get your best ideas?' Almost no hands go up when I ask, 'Is it at work?' They're more likely to say they get the best ideas when they're taking a shower, or walking the dog or doing yoga and not distracted by their technology," he says.

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"The problem with mobile technology is there can be so many messages and it's so easy to reply to them, that for some people their main goal in the day becomes getting through them all. If they don't set some personal boundaries they're going to end up overwhelmed in the future," Dr. Posen warns.

"My advice is to use anything that works for you, but do a reality check on whether it is really working for you."

It's warning sign, for example, if the first thing you do after waking is check your cellphone and e-mail, he says. Other signals are the need to check messages at the dinner table or a restaurant or while walking. "All along Bay Street [in Toronto] you see people who aren't watching where they're going because they're watching their smartphones."

A simple check it to ask the people you live with if they think you spend too much time on your smartphone, he says. "Get a sense from other people because they may see you more clearly than you do."

Then you need to take action to regain control of your personal time. "We're getting to the point where having cut-and-dried rules aren't going to work. So you do have to set your own rules for disengaging."

"Even though we talk about blending work and life, we have to learn to integrate technology into our lives in a way that still does leave enough personal time."

If the demand is coming from your organization, a push-back can be effective. "People need to gather up their courage and say to the boss and their colleagues that their need for instant response to every message has become disruptive. That tends to make people back off," Dr. Posen says.

Mr. Reid says he has taken steps to set limits. For instance, he turns off his devices before bedtime, sets them to vibrate in meetings and ignores them during conversations.

At the same time, he has found that being online whenever he wants is actually a way to make both his work and life simpler and easier.

"I find it less stressful to get issues that come up out of the way on the spot rather than let the work build up."

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More


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