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Wireless and work-life balance

A federal government department recently imposed limits on anywhere, anytime communications: It's definitely about time.


March 1, 2008  


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Earlier this year, the Ottawa Citizen reported that employees at Citizenship and Immigration Canada received an internal memo restricting their use of the BlackBerry wireless PDA.

The author, the deputy minister of the federal government department, was not concerned about security or any of the other issues that normally arise when considering the use of wireless devices in the workplace.

Rather, Richard Fadden banned the use of the BlackBerry between 7:00 p. m. and 7:00 a. m. over concerns about how such anywhere, anytime communication capabilities affect the work-life balance and stress levels of those who use them.

Wireless communications tools have been hailed as great boons to our quality of life, by enabling us to work when and where we choose.

Certainly in my own, self-employed world, I rely on my mobile phone and welcome the freedom it provides me to run errands or otherwise get away from my desk when I am finished one project and waiting for the next to start. I am sure some of my clients keep lists of the many different places they have reached me on my mobile.

But this issue is not limited to the BlackBerry, or to devices that are wirelessly connected.

Laptops, virtual private networks, high-speed Internet in airports, hotel rooms and other public spaces, and many other Internet-powered solutions — both wireless and wired — can contribute to worker productivity. And they can be effective time-management tools.

Technology predictions

But as we’ve seen so many times in the past, those who throw the sticks, stare into crystal balls or search for signs in the patterns of the (network) clouds often predict marvelous futures enabled by technology and then we discover that the reality is much different.

Remember the prognostications that the introduction of computers into the business world would result in the fourday workweek and the paperless office? We all know how that turned out: Many of us are at our desks days, evenings and weekends, and we generate more paper than ever before.

In the wireless world, the promise of more freedom has not become the reality for many workers. Instead, wireless devices tether people to the office.

They are expected to be available for meetings or to provide information 24 hours per day, regardless of whether they’re on the road, eating dinner, out for the evening with their partner, enjoying a weekend activity with their kids, on vacation … you get the idea. In fact, for many of you, I suspect I have just described your own life.

Corporate culture

It is a fallacy to think that technology unchecked can increase productivity and efficiency just as it’s folly to consider, as some do, that productivity is the best yardstick by which to measure success. As a writer, I do my best thinking when I am away from the keyboard. (In fact, I organized my thoughts for this column while walking the dog, which is very productive for him but probably would not be viewed favourably in most office environments.)

I think it is safe to assume that while Richard Fadden’s memo addresses BlackBerry use, the message is not aimed at or limited to Research In Motion’s wonderful little e-mail machine. Rather, this is an important message that Fadden’s department values its employees and recognizes that those who achieve a balance in their lives deliver better quality work.

This is a position that many other organizations, in all sectors, would be wise to adopt as their own.

Changing a corporate culture will take more than a memo, though. For starters, if employees simply move from a BlackBerry to a laptop the goal of stress reduction will not be achieved. Therefore, employees and especially those who have become communications junkies, will need help adjusting to an environment in which they are expected to unplug.

I am not sure what the answer is, but I expect it involves a major examination of workplace habits and best practices, coupled with realistic assessment of what can be accomplished by motivated people during regular office hours.

While there may be a period of adjustment, this is definitely worth doing. Therefore, while I am sure that I am late to the party, I would like to add my congratulations to Richard Fadden for having the daring to say enough is enough, in the interests of the quality of life of his colleagues.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile, but not all the time) at 416-878-7730 or trevor@words-tm.com.