Is tech good or bad for work-life balance?

A report published by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency (RURA) indicates that at least six million Rwandans of the total estimated 11 million possess mobile phones and are connected to the existing communication networks.
Joanne Bushell
Joanne Bushell

A report published by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency (RURA) indicates that at least six million Rwandans of the total estimated 11 million possess mobile phones and are connected to the existing communication networks.

Statistics also indicate that mobile phone subscribers shot to 6,039,615 in March this year from 5,902,630 in January, indicating a monthly increase of about 8.14 per cent.

And the government has set sights on having at least eight million Rwandan mobile phone subscribers and five million internet users by 2016.

The government is banking on the power of ICT to help deliver the country to middle-income status by 2020.

Africa will be one focal point of the boom in smart-phones. Microsoft/Huawei and Samsung are launching new smart-phones for the African, and Research In Motion’s Blackberry is already well established there.

Clearly, smart-phones are hugely empowering for Africa. They’ll spur the growth of entrepreneurship and local businesses, and bring improvements to areas of life including healthcare and education. But, at the same time, 24/7 technology brings with it stresses and strains, making workers feel they’re always on call.

These feelings may be exacerbated as manufacturers find new ways to keep us online. In the US,Sergey Brin of Google and other early adopters are already wearing the Google Glass – spectacles which allow wearers to use the internet. And it’s widely expected that Apple will launch a smart-watch.

If we don’t even have to reach into our pockets for our phone in order to connect to work, it’s going to be harder than ever to switch off.

Positive or negative?

In a recent global survey by Accenture, 78% of workers said technology lets them be more flexible with their work schedules. But 70% said technology brings work into their personal lives. Feelings are clearly mixed.

Technology has facilitated the 24/7 working culture, but other things have fed into it too. Businesses are interacting with customers and colleagues in different time zones, and staff are increasingly expected to be available for late-night or early-morning calls. And the global downturn forced many workers to take on additional duties, which led to them working longer hours.

So don’t let’s blame everything on technology. And let’s not forget the very positive changes that technology has brought to work and work-life balance over the past decade.

Think how much easier it is to do your job when the cloud means you no longer have to go to the office to access corporate information or applications. Remember how video-conferencing has reduced the need for time-consuming corporate travel.

Both those benefits are possible because technology allows people to work anywhere.

It’s no coincidence that the launch of devices such as the Blackberry in 2003, the iPhone in 2008 and the iPad in 2010 has been accompanied by a steep rise in the number of people using Regus business centres and drop-in business lounges to work.

In the latest edition of the Regus Work-Life Balance Index, 41% of respondents globally said their companies were doing more to help employees reduce commuting than two years earlier.

It’s probable that flexible working and other measures to cut commuting are some of the reasons why 61% of people in the Regus Work-Life Balance Index 2012 said their work-life balance was better than in 2010.

The negatives of 24/7 management models

The negative aspects of 24/7 mobile technology arise because of management cultures. People use mobile devices and technology for work outside office hours because their bosses or clients expect them to. So it’s not their phones that are preventing them from relaxing, it’s other people.

As smartphone ownership and usage proliferate in Africa, we need to intensify the debate about work-life balance and people’s availability in a 24/7 world. Sure, people may need to do late-night conference calls, but they may be happier to do so if flexible working patterns let them cut their commuting time or juggle home and work commitments.

And office workers may need to think about their own habits too. One reason why colleagues and clients can easily reach us out of hours is that we’re already online – using social media or checking the football scores. We’re more likely to hear the ping of an email arriving, so we’re more likely to deal with it.

The sender assumes we’re happy to work out-of-hours, and bombards us even more in future. It’s not just employers who need to learn the lessons about technology, presenteeism (at the desk or on the end of the phone), and how we can work most productively, it’s also ourselves …

The writer is the Vice President - Africa for Regus, the world’s largest provider of flexible workspace


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