Who’s the Boss, You or Your Gadget?

GIVEN the widespread adoption of smartphones, text messaging, video calling and social media, today’s professionals mean it when they brag about staying connected to work 24/7.

Technology allowed Karen Riley-Grant, a manager at Levi Strauss in San Francisco, to take care of some business with her New York publicist while she was in labor in the hospital last November. “I had time on my hands,” she says, and “full strength on my phone — five bars.”

It once enabled Craig Wilson, an executive at Avaya in Toronto, to take his children to a Linkin Park concert and be able to duck out to finish a task for a client in Australia, he says, “without disruption to my family commitment or my work commitment.”

And it recently gave Perry Blacher, chief executive of the social investing firm Covestor, a way to participate in a board teleconference while attending a christening celebration at a pub in England.

But all of this amped-up productivity comes with a growing sense of unease. Too often, people find themselves with little time to concentrate and reflect on their work. Or to be truly present with their friends and family.

There’s a palpable sense “that home has invaded work and work has invaded home and the boundary is likely never to be restored,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. “The new gadgetry,” he adds, “has really put this issue into much clearer focus.”

The phenomenon started with the rise of BlackBerrys and has snowballed with the use of more smartphones, social media and tablet computers. Employees are using their smartphones and other devices to connect with corporate e-mail, applications and data wherever they happen to be — whether at home, on the go or even on vacation.

Now add the effects of the recent recession. Because jobs and promotion opportunities are scarce, many workers are worried that someone who is more connected and available could outclimb them on the corporate ladder, says Peggy Klaus, an executive coach in Berkeley, Calif.

“Even if you have a career that is pretty solid,” she says, there is the feeling that advancement requires being plugged in at all times.

But at what price?

Ms. Riley-Grant, who is 35 and director of global consumer marketing for the Dockers brand, has felt the stress of trying to stay constantly connected — not because of pressure from her bosses, she says, but her own fear.

“I love my job,” she says. “The decision to plug in or unplug is a personal one. My job is fast-paced and demanding. If I’m not paying attention during the off-hours, things could go south.”

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But even before the birth of her second child last year, she recognized that she needed to power down to achieve the right work-life balance. So with the help of Ms. Klaus, she made a plan to take small steps: she let her co-workers know that she would be turning off her iPhone for a few hours on weeknights and weekend days, and completely on certain Friday nights.

She tries to communicate a need for balance to employees who report to her, too. “I worry about the speed at which they are going,” she says, adding that she wants them to “shut down” when needed, for the sake of their families and their health.

The conversation about what’s expected of workers “after hours” is crucial to managing expectations, researchers and workplace specialists say. Mr. Wilson, 52, global director of strategic consulting for Avaya, a provider of business communications systems, says he is respectful of his colleagues who work in different countries and time zones. “If I e-mail someone at 7 at night,” he said, “it’s not legitimate of me to expect a response that night or at 7 in the morning.”

TO a large degree, how workers incorporate devices into their daily routines depends on the individual. Some people insist on keeping work and life concerns separate, while others integrate components of both and manage them together.

For example, Stephanie Marchesi of the marketing firm Fleishman-Hillard in New York developed a system that involves carrying four devices at all times: an iPhone and an iPad for family and social life and a BlackBerry and a laptop for work. “I can pull out one and pull out the other and check on both aspects of my life,” she says.

Ms. Marchesi, 47, managing director and senior partner of global integrated marketing communications at the firm, says technology “allows me the flexibility I need to balance work life with personal life.”

She maintains separate e-mail addresses and calendars because her company can access her work e-mail and calendar. “I want my personal life personal,” she says. “I have chosen to keep things separate. I don’t need my work to know when my son has a play date or dentist appointment. It’s not their business.”

On a typical day, she says, she is up early at her home in Darien, Conn., to make sure that both her children get off to school. She catches the 7 a.m. train to Manhattan and immediately pulls out her Internet-connected laptop and BlackBerry. For the next hour, it is as if she is in the office, she says: “When I am commuting, I have not disappeared.”

The same is true, she says, on the 5:57 p.m. train back home. Her only downtime is the 10 minutes it takes her to get to the station. In the evening, she allows time for dinner and family, but then she pulls out her laptop.

Occasionally, the routine varies — she might have to take a child to the doctor, or attend an after- school conference — but the fluidity remains. On weekends, she works on the laptop and checks her BlackBerry.


The entire routine “feels very natural,” Ms. Marchesi says. “I’m not a stressed-out person, nor am I this maniac. I am committed, connected and responsive.”

Alan Atwell doesn’t keep his work and personal life on separate devices, but he does try to ensure that his work life doesn’t hold his personal life hostage. Mr. Atwell, 44, national leader for tax process and technology at RSM McGladrey, an accounting and business consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C., tries to be accessible when he is away from work. But only to a point. A few weeks ago, for example, he was helping to coach his son’s basketball team, and an important text message beeped in. He says he was able to answer it quickly without disrupting practice.

“If something important comes up, if I need to step out, I can,” he says. “At the same time, I can wait if I am with my family or taking care of civic obligations. Generally, I try not to walk around staring at the phone. I do try to pick moments when I need to be present for whatever group I am interacting with.”

One upside of technology, of course, is that it enables people to be present even if they are not in the same room. On a recent trip to New York, Mr. Blacher, 37, of Covestor, pulled out
his Sony Vaio and started a video chat with his 2-year-old son in London. “It’s really hard to be away,” he says. “If you didn’t have things like Skype, I don’t know how I’d do it.”

While on a business trip, Ana Dutra, 46, of the executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry in Chicago, helped her teenage daughter at home pick out a dress for homecoming via Skype, text messages and photographs. She communicates this way with her other two daughters as well. “That’s actually wonderful,” says Ms. Dutra, “to be able to see them even if I am far away.”

It would not be odd to find Ms. Dutra, chief executive of Korn/Ferry’s leadership and talent consulting business, answering an e-mail on her BlackBerry and talking on her iPhone at the same time. At night, she used to keep her phone on vibrate mode — and it would go off 20 times. “This is crazy,” she thought. “That’s the point, in my view, when instead of improving your quality of life, technology is destroying your quality of life. I was waking up tired every day.”

So now both of her phones are on silent mode at night. She has instituted other changes, as well, to find balance. If she needs quiet time to meditate, she takes it. She also practices yoga, even if only for 20 minutes a day.

“If you need some quiet time,” she says, “it’s up to you to not allow yourself to be bothered for an hour or half an hour.”

Technology has afforded her more freedom, Ms. Dutra says, “but there’s a little bit more slavery as well.”

“If you are available all the time,” she adds, “what does that mean?”

John Lilly, the former chief executive of Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, recently pondered publicly what it meant to be so connected and decided to initiate a temporary reprieve.

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Mr. Lilly is by choice and necessity a power user of multiple gadgets and social media. As he prepared for his new role as a venture partner at Greylock Partners, the Silicon Valley investment firm, he announced on his blog that he was taking time “to be a little more generative, to think bigger, more original thoughts.”

He said he would turn off Google Reader, Twitter and Facebook. “I’m really excited to have a bit of

time to start 2012 to slow down, try to think longer term, and to slow down my clock,” he wrote.

Mr. Lilly, 40, says he tried. But as it turns out, too much of his life was tangled up in e-mail and social networks. “I couldn’t figure out how to disengage from all that stuff,” he says. “More to the point, I didn’t really want to.”

Still, in anticipation of his new job, he has slowed his pace, which had been in overdrive at Mozilla. “As an investor, the entrepreneur is the thing,” he said. “I want to get to a place to focus on them, to be present and listen and hear what they are about.”

Since he has slowed down, he says, “I probably feel less twitchy — I don’t feel the need to check e-mail and Twitter feeds every five minutes.”

“But I don’t like going days without it,” he adds. “I like being in touch with my friends, seeing what they are doing. I think of Twitter as my peripheral vision.”

The good news about technology, he says, is you can be anywhere and still work. The bad news, he says, is that “anywhere you are, you have to work.”

Too much connectivity can damage the quality of one’s work, says Robert Sutton, author of “Good Boss, Bad Boss” and a professor at Stanford. Because of devices, he says, “nobody seems to actually pay full attention; everybody is doing a worse job because they are doing more things.”

Mobile devices and social media, he says, “make us a little more oblivious, a little more incompetent.” Just recall those pilots who overshot their destination two years ago because they were using computers, he adds.

“The emotionally compelling nature of the device and live information it carries — and the intermittent reinforcement it carries, plus the pressure of living in a world where for many people ‘immediately’ now really means immediately — causes people to be entranced by their devices and to ignore real life as it unfolds in front of them,” Professor Sutton says.

SOMETIMES avoiding real life might be part of the appeal. When Ms. Riley-Grant was in labor and tapping away on her phone, she was “in denial that my life and everything I knew to be real and true was about to change,” she says. “Going from one child to two can rock your world a bit — from what I had heard — and I don’t think I was ready. I’m still not ready! Working allowed me to hold on to my ‘old self’ before surrendering to a new life.”

On leave, she has switched from using her smartphone for work to keeping up with friends and family. At the same time, she is bracing herself for technological re-entry and all its demands.

“We’re in a technology tsunami,” says her coach, Ms. Klaus. “Whether you love it or hate it, ultimately we have to figure out how to survive it and make it work for us.”