Work-life: Balancing acts

How being 'always on' may be the secret to achieving harmony between life and work.

Su Grant has her own rule about e-mail. After she leaves the office at 4 or 4:30 to pick up her son at daycare, she doesn’t respond to anyone until the toddler is in bed four hours later. Then it’s OK; she’ll work late into the night if she has to. She is, after all, the senior manager of recruitment strategy for business-services firm Deloitte Canada.

“I have a video camera built into my laptop. I can be looking at colleagues any time, anywhere,” Grant says. Despite frequently working from home, “I never feel like I’m away from the team.”

And if it seems intrusive, always having that smartphone within reach, vibrating or pinging with incoming messages at all hours, Grant figures it’s a fair trade. “You can’t have it both ways,” she says. You can’t expect to have a flexible work schedule during business hours, then refuse to cede some of your off-time to the job.

The sudden proliferation of wireless computing technology in recent years has opened a new front in the struggle for work-life balance, a battle many managers and employees feel they are losing. Smartphones and laptops have brought work not just home with us but to soccer practice and to the beach. According to web conferencing company InterCall, 30% of Americans using smartphones for work feel obliged to keep them on all the time, including on vacation. One-quarter of the 2,500 respondents to InterCall’s survey felt their job security depended on being available outside office hours; 17% said they risked management’s displeasure if they didn’t check in while on holiday.

Professionals have come to love swapping war stories about working remotely. Consultant Gerlinde Herrmann, a past president of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario, recalls taking her BlackBerry on an African safari, “which was stupid.” Henry Blodget, editor of the Business Insider website, said his wake-up call came when his six-year-old daughter playfully gave him the Native American name “Daddy who is boring” for his constant pecking at keys during supposed quality time with his kids. “Like any connected individual these days, I work everywhere, all the time. At the kitchen table. On the couch. In the car. In bed,” he wrote by way of a resolution to work differently in 2011. “And it turns out, of course, that when I’m working, even when I am physically there — See? Daddy Who Doesn’t Work All The Time! — I’m not mentally there. I’m mentally at work.”

The perception of technology upsetting hard-won balance, though, flies in the face of the facts. Thanks in large part to that same mobile technology, workers with marketable skills have more freedom than ever before to strike their own balance between the demands of their job and the rest of their lives. The problem is, too few take the initiative.

As demand for skilled employees has increased in the information age, employers increasingly offer flexibility as a recruitment and retention tool. At the same time, companies have come to realize that an office need not be designed and run like a factory, where workstations are arrayed in rows in view of the supervisor, says Dan Ondrack, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Many of the tasks central to the firm’s operation can just as easily be accomplished at home or at a time more convenient for the employee. Already by 2001, when Health Canada conducted a massive survey of 31,571 workers on the subject of work-life balance, a third of respondents said they enjoyed high flexibility in working hours and location, and another 39%, moderate flexibility.

The explosion of wireless technology is only accelerating this erasing of the boundary between work and life into a grey area. On the whole, though, workers view that as a net benefit, says Ondrack, who recently conducted a study into attitudes to portable work tools sponsored by a telecommunications company. While a majority of professionals and managers say they work overtime with the help of mobile devices and their workloads have increased as a result, most attribute that to the accompanying productivity increase and regard the change as a positive influence on their lives. A Nanos poll sponsored by The Globe and Mail echoed Ondrack’s findings, indicating more than three-quarters of Canadians regard smartphones as a neutral or positive factor on lifestyle.

So perhaps we need to stop whining about work-life balance and complaining about having to carry phones and laptops everywhere we go. If off-hours e-mail and tweaking of proposals is ruining your home life, you likely have yourself to blame.

The whole idea of designated business hours is a relatively new one in human history. The captains of England’s Industrial Revolution locked the doors of their factories during their 12-hour workdays because the former farmhands on the assembly lines had a habit of wandering off for a snooze whenever they felt like it as they used to back on the farm. From this evolved the idea of the punch clock, of work being an exchange of fully engaged person-hours for wages.

The term work-life balance, though, didn’t come into usage until the 1980s, following the widespread entry of women into the paid workforce. Suddenly, parents had to co-ordinate their work schedules with pickup times at school and daycare. If a child got the flu or an elderly parent suffered a fall, somebody had to take a day off. By and large, employers accommodated that need. (With the exception of mandated parental leave, government intervention has been largely unhelpful. The countries with the stiffest workplace balance rules tend to have the biggest gender gaps.) There remain inflexible jobs and workplaces, of course — 29% of us worked in them in Health Canada’s 2001 National Work-Life Conflict Study. But they increasingly fall at the low end of the income scale. A paper on Families, Time and Well-Being in Canada published by Dalhousie University’s Peter Burton and Shelley Phipps last May, concluded that, while imbalance would seem a professional family’s cri de coeur, it is actually more prevalent in the low- and middle-income groups. “Self-assessed time crunch has increased more for lower-income families than for higher-income families between 1992 and 2005,” the authors wrote. “Higher real income is associated with lower reported time stress.” And yet it is the higher-earning specialists and managers most likely to be toting smartphones and laptops on the commute home.

So what’s causing this problem with technology and balance? It seems to be us. Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, spent seven months following 25 subjects who had been provided BlackBerrys for work. Most went into the exercise expecting to apply strict rules as to when and where they would use the devices — to “segment” their work and family time, to use the academic parlance. Only four stuck to the plan, though. Conversely, among those who chose to “integrate” their lives, only four reported using the device for personal matters during work time. The majority ended up using their phones to work outside business hours, but did not use it for personal purposes between nine and five. They let their work intrude on their own time but were timid about the quid pro quo.

But while the BlackBerrys “changed work patterns significantly,” Duxbury attests, they didn’t increase the number of hours worked. Instead, people who previously worked overtime at the office from time to time now did that work at home. In a broader survey of 840 knowledge workers — managers and professionals with specialized expertise — Duxbury found the average time spent working outside the workplace was seven hours a week. So yes, in this sense Blodget is right: we’re often distracted in the presence of our families. But the alternative is not being with our loved ones at all.

Jennifer and Devereaux Jennings, married professors with the University of Alberta School of Business, have been studying work-life balance among entrepreneurs for more than a decade. What smartphones have done is make the integration strategy easier and segmenting harder, Jennifer says. And that has consequences, since each strategy works better for certain personality types and carries different benefits. Segmenters typically experience less conflict between their work and home lives, while integration “allows you to work much more,” Devereaux says. Fortunately, the ones who struggle hardest for balance are seldom fighting that fight alone. When it comes to achieving balance for the household, he says, “there’s a lot going on at the couple level as opposed to the individual or organizational level.” One spouse’s ability to work anywhere and any time often makes it possible for the other to follow a stricter schedule.

If the benefits of mobile technology still seem skewed toward the organization, employees have more freedom to set their own boundaries than most realize. To begin with, they have to ask themselves who’s demanding they be on call 24/7. Toronto-based consultant and author Barbara Moses, who leads workshops around balance with executives and middle managers, says that, while bosses routinely send e-mails to their subordinates outside of business hours, she’s never once come across an employer who insisted on an immediate response, except in emergencies. “People have a choice” whether to check e-mail and whether to respond, she says.

Statistics bear that out. In Health Canada’s 2001 National Work-Life Conflict Study — the widest-reaching survey on the subject, before or since — nearly half of respondents (47%) considered their supervisor sympathetic to their need for work-life balance. Just 16% said they had an unsupportive boss. Companies as diverse as public-relations firm Edelman, drug maker GlaxoSmithKline and financial-services giant American Express have even instituted policies banning e-mail during evenings, weekends and holidays. Typically, the impetus comes from the top. At Amex, for example, executive vice-president and corporate controller Joan Amble instituted a policy banning e-mails after 8 p.m. following a personal epiphany. The first e-mail she received beyond that cutoff time prompted this response in capital letters: “PLEASE ACKNOWLEDGE THAT YOU ARE IN VIOLATION OF OUR NEW E-MAIL POLICY. SIGNED, WORK-LIFE BALANCE POLICE.”

But for the most part, employers leave decisions regarding boundaries to the discretion of supervisors and employees themselves. “I see very little resistance in companies now to make [flexible arrangements] with employees,” says Herrmann. Achieving balance in the age of mobile computing, she says, “requires an adult relationship between the employer and employee.” It also seems to be a discussion best conducted one-on-one. Despite trade unions’ stated commitment to their members’ work-life balance, it is workplaces covered by collective agreements that are typically the most rigid about the time and place of work.

Certainly, when presented with the option of having an employee who is “always-on,” organizational culture will take it. It helps firms operate across time zones in a globalized economy. And competition among employees for advancement may subtly drive them to check their e-mail more than they ought to. “People say, ‘I don’t want to be out of the loop,'” Duxbury says. Joking or not, half of her subjects used the word “addiction” with respect to their BlackBerrys. Nonetheless, she says, employers are not demanding employees work at home or during family time; people do it to themselves.

“A lot of people’s behaviour around their BlackBerrys relates to their feelings of self-importance,” says Moses. They think they are more essential to the company’s operations than they are, and feel validated by a full inbox. What often happens is employees themselves end up conditioning their co-workers to expect them to be always available. When you respond to an e-mail at 11 p.m., you are inviting your boss and your colleagues to invade your personal time on a regular basis, she says. “You’re socializing them as much as they’re socializing you.”

If the old boundaries between work and life have broken down, it’s up to individuals to set their own, Moses says. Decide at what times and under what circumstances you’re going to be available. Will you just check e-mail, or respond as well? Talk to your boss about expectations. Agree with your team to flag e-mails as “urgent” only if they need a response immediately. Finally, have some sacrosanct times when you’re with your kids or on vacation when you turn your work phone off, but can be reached in emergencies by land line or personal cell, (the way things were before mobile work phones became ubiquitous).

Whether at work or at home, she advises, prioritize face-to-face conversation. “Be there 100%,” she recommends. “If you’re at work, focus on work. If you’re at home, focus on home. If you’re doing three things at once, you’re doing them all badly.”

Deloitte, which has won accolades for its family-friendly policies, is supportive of employees setting their own boundaries, Grant insists. From the employer’s perspective, the important thing these days is that you’re delivering on your mandate. “Provided you achieve your targets, you have absolute freedom to set your work hours and location,” Grant says. As an HR professional, she believes technology-enabled flexibility creates a happier and more loyal workforce. And as a new mom, she says it allows people to impose a balance in their lives that they wouldn’t enjoy otherwise. “I’m living it. I believe in it.”

The number of believers is likely to increase, Rotman’s Ondrack adds, not only with the entry into the workforce of a “Net generation” inured to constant electronic communication but also among baby boomers who hope to continue working beyond retirement. If they could escape the career track but still work part-time and from home, “that could be very attractive to a lot of people,” he says. It could also have a public benefit if it lessens the need for governments to build highways designed for rush-hour commuting or for workers to spend $100 a week or more on transportation, parking, coffee, lunches and so on. Whole companies such as law firm Cognition LLP and accounting firm, not to mention IT firms (Mob4hire, Fluidsurveys, Mercury Grove, Itteco Software), have moved to a completely home-based office model. In a recent interview, Jim Keane, president of office-furniture maker Steelcase, described the disappearance of data-entry jobs from the North American workplace and the rise, or at least endurance, of “creating, debating, human-type” work. “It’s about reading e-mail,” Keane said. “The desk jobs have moved overseas.”

The last skirmish in the work-life war ended in a saw-off, with the realization that our careers, like our kids, will always demand more attention than we can reasonably give, and we have to make choices. This new, technology-driven one offers the individual still more power to choose. It has demolished the old, universally understood rules around what it means to be at work. Don’t expect new rules to take their place, though. In a mobile world, balancing work and the rest of your life is no longer an either/or between segmenting and integrating. It’s a blend of strategies that every working person has to come up with for themselves. Once you realize that you’re in control and act accordingly, Herrmann says, “technology is an enabler of balance.” It hasn’t so much shackled us to the job as freed us from the job site.