Why remote access is all WET

I was in New York recently on what passes for a business trip in my line of work. With only a couple hours to see the sights, another journalist and I wandered Times Square till all hours, then found myself at 2 a.m. in the hotel business centre, checking e-mail. Hell, it’s the City That Never Sleeps;

why should I?

(I probably should have. I showed up for breakfast looking a little groggy. A French colleague looked me over and intoned suavely, “You are carrying your bed on your back,” a colloquialism I’ve never heard before, but a remarkably apt one. Mais, je fais une digression.)

Remote e-mail access falls into the category of work extension technologies (WET), along with cell phones, BlackBerries, laptops and the like. And, says Carleton University business professor Linda Duxbury, there’s a very dark side to their impact. For example, checking your e-mail at two in the morning.

Duxbury, who’ll be a keynote speaker at the CIPS Informatics conference in Regina this month, says years ago, your boss would have hesitated to call you at home about a business-related matter on a Sunday afternoon. Now, though, bosses don’t think twice before sending that e-mail message – and often, they expect near-instant response. As the old song goes, Sunday Will Never Be The Same (Ba-da-ba-da-bah-pah-bah …)

Duxbury, University of Western Ontario prof Christopher Higgins, and PhD candidates John Thomas and Ian Towers surveyed 33,000 workers – public sector, private sector, non-profit; clerical, professional and managerial – about their use of work extension technologies and how it’s affecting their professional and personal lives. While three-quarters said they’re more productive for it, that productivity is coming at a cost.

Seventy per cent said their workloads increased. Seventy-six per cent said it increased stress levels. And work extension technologies are particularly cruel to managers: More than 90 per cent said workload and stress had increased. It’s entirely predictable, given the extent to which downsizing has affected the management layer of the corporate world.

“There’s no downtime anymore. There’s no time to think,” says Duxbury. Increased availability means increased expectations, and it’s not under the worker’s control. Duxbury blames the “culture of hours,” wherein more time working is equated with more productivity.

Naturally, it’s having a deleterious effect on workers’ management of work-life balance. “Their home isn’t their home anymore,” says Duxbury. “Their home becomes an extension of their office.”

This should raise warning flags for employers. Though the survey also showed an improvement in perceived productivity and job satisfaction (especially among the professional class), the always-on employee is a new phenomenon. If we can’t get the stress dimension under control, says Duxbury, job satisfaction and productivity will decline.

To maximize the gains from work extension technologies, we have to start talking about boundaries, she says. Years ago, when party lines were common in rural areas, we’d listen in on each other’s calls, until we established that sort of thing simply isn’t done in civilized society. “It’s time we had a similar discussion about e-mail,” says Duxbury.

Employers have a stake in this, and not just for the soft and fuzzy work-life balance reasons. We’re facing a diminishing pool of skilled labour, says Duxbury, and unreasonable expectations could make harried workers look for greener, less stressful fields. If an employer gives employees tools to be available anytime, anywhere, and makes it clear that they’re expected to be responsive 24-by-7, “recognize that you do that at your own risk.”

Duxbury et al’s study catalogues a number of recommendations to employers from survey participants, including a “clear, unambiguous policy on when and how to use WET (i.e. WETiquette)” and allowing personal use of work extension technologies. It also advises workers to “learn when to turn off WET – this is entirely up to you,” and negotiate with superiors beforehand how you’re expected to use the technology.

It’s good advice, and, if followed, maybe we won’t be walking around carrying our beds on our backs.

Dave Webb is sleepy now.

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