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Mobile Communications

Kathryn Cave (Global) - Workaholics Anonymous: Would You 'BlackBerry' From a Funeral?

With 70% of IT and business professionals believing they don’t spend too long on their BlackBerrys and 64% stating productivity is ‘not applicable’, Kathryn Cave, Editor at IDG Connect looks at ideal working hours and whether businesses have finally got the work/life balance it right.

“Hi, I'm Joan, and I'm a workaholic” ran the headline on a ‘Workaholics Anonymous’ feature in USA Today a few years back. One workaholic, Erica, emails at 3 am, forgets to eat lunch until her BlackBerry alarm reminds her and spends evenings networking at dinners with clients. In her words: “The only relationship I have is really with my BlackBerry, I tend to be a people pleaser. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I have to deliver. I use work as an excuse."

This is a rather sad story, especially in light of Robert Owen’s nineteenth century crusade for shorter hours. Starting in 1810, he set his sights on a ten-hour day. Seven years later he had lifted the bar still higher coining the slogan: Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest. The “short-time movement”, born in response to the 10 - 16 hours six days a week demanded by the industrial revolution, set Britain on course for modern working hours.

Today, the importance of an acceptable work-life balance is forever making headlines. There are numerous studies into how much unpaid overtime people put in. For example, the Chartered Management’s The Quality of Working Life 2012 survey of over 1,300 managers in 2007 and 2012 paints a grim picture of UK workplaces. The average manager now works around 46 days unpaid overtime per year. 60% of these feel they have no choice because of the volume of work, and 29% work long hours because job cuts have increased their workload. To add to this, a GTI study released this May showed that IT professionals have a particular workaholic tendency, with 34% contributing the equivalent of a full business quarter - 60 days extra per year.

The flip side of all this is that people are now able to do everything with much more flexibility than before. People may be working 20 hours extra a week, but perhaps they’re doing it from the comfort of their living room. This Summer, the Olympics saw an estimated 1 million people working remotely in order to steer clear of central London. This trend is becoming increasingly noticeable globally. In fact the 2012 National Study of Employers showed that since 2005, the number of US companies allowing employees to sometimes work from home has nearly doubled to 63%. The percentage of companies that let employees periodically change the time they leave work has also increased by 13% in the time period.

These changes are all facilitated by technology, but technology is a double-edged sword. One of the much emphasized problems of home-working is that whilst it may not make people more productive, it does mean they tend to work longer hours. If you don’t have to dash off to beat the traffic or catch a specific train it is very easy to work far longer than intended, prior to shut-down. In a recent article on Inc.com, Geoffrey James cited Ford Motor research from the start of the twentieth century that ran dozens of tests to discover the optimum work hours for worker productivity. They discovered that 40 hours a week is ideal; and whilst adding another 20 hours does increase productivity minimally, that boost only lasts for three to four weeks, and then turns negative.

This is where the dangers of mobility start to raise their ugly heads. I’m sure most people have a friend who never puts their BlackBerry down. Most people probably even know one-or-two of those ‘xtreme-workers’ who would whip out the device at a funeral. But honestly, is all this ceaseless activity actually making us more productive? Here at IDG Connect we’re in the process of conducting some research on BlackBerry use amongst IT and Business decision makers in Europe. The interim finding (research is not yet complete), based on around 200 professionals across UK, France and Germany makes for quite interesting reading. 

At first glance the results aren’t what I expected at all. The BlackBerry is still generally speaking the business phone of choice in Europe, because of the QWERTY keyboard if nothing else. Yet when we asked, ‘Does your Blackberry make you more productive?’18% said yes, 18% said no and an astonishing 64% said not applicable.  Something similar was true of, ‘Does your Blackberry intrude on social occasions?’, for this 23% said no, never, 9% who said yes (all the time/ sometimes/ occasionally) and 68% said not applicable. Seriously, am I supposed to believe that sizable percentages of IT/ business decision makers do not own a Blackberry?

These results almost read as if people are avoiding the question. This is beyond odd. Surely nobody would care about an anonymous IDG Connect survey? Yet when we asked, ‘Do you take your Blackberry on holiday’, respondents were much more unequivocal, 42% said no, 26% said yes (all the time/ sometimes/ occasionally), only 32% stated the question was not applicable. The numbers of those who neglected to answer the question dropped to 26% when we directly asked, ‘Do you spend too long on your Blackberry?’ where 70% responded no, and only 4% answered yes.

Findings do seem to suggest an element of dissembling. Whilst most professionals appear anxious to insist that they don’t spend too long on their Blackberry and only a handful admit to taking it on holiday all the time; on less black and white subjects professionals appear cagey. This was especially true for the productivity results. In fact the strong impression I get from the consistent 18% for yes and no, and the majority 64% for not applicable, is that people just aren’t sure.

This oughtn’t to surprise me in the slightest; depending on your job, productivity can be a difficult thing to evaluate. Many people do work longer hours because it’s easy to do so, but it is always going to be hard to quantify if they get more done. If you take a 9 – 5 view; you will be out that door by 5pm no matter what happens. However, once you decide that work can bleed outside other hours – and you will nip online once the children are in bed - there can be no stopping it. A lot of people feel virtuous for working longer, but I do wonder if they actually get more done?

Overall, the real question is whether people are doing more work because they have to, or because they feel some inner compulsion to do so? This is something which is almost impossible to get to the bottom of. Mind you, I am writing this at home with a glass of wine in my hand… maybe I should go off and join one of those Anonymous groups…

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