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Is there such a thing as being too connected? Employees who have found themselves "on call" at all hours might think so, but this issue is more cultural than technological, according to HR experts.

“Fifteen years ago, I had no mobile phone and one email address,” says Nathan Williams, a strategist at brand consultancy Wolff Olins who’s worked for digital agencies since 1995. “Now I can be carrying three mobiles, a laptop and a tablet. I’ve also got different email addresses, phone numbers and Messenger accounts. Then there’s Twitter, Facebook and everything else. You can be in danger of information overload.”

If that’s what it’s like for someone who describes himself as a “digital native”, just how bad is it for the rest of us? Mobile technology has made us far more contactable and vastly increased our access to information in recent years. For example, daily news is now available from a huge range of channels and in different formats all competing for attention on our mobile devices alongside messages from our relatives, friends and colleagues.

Vodafone’s Future Agenda research programme, which spanned 12 months, 150 countries and thousands of people, reports that as the world becomes “increasingly ‘always on’ and ‘always connected’… and the number of forms of who we are and groups we may belong to increases, we can expect things to get even more complex”. How companies and individuals are dealing with this trend is transforming both the marketplace and the workplace.

“It’s really been changing in the past five years,” says Darrell Minards, European head of marketing communications at Xerox. “People had been used to working in a linear fashion and then suddenly lots of great technology arrived that would in theory improve their communication and information, but could actually harm their performance if used poorly.”

Minards cites the example of people checking their smartphones during meetings, which distracts them from the business in hand: “If you think about how you’re going to use it and implement it, then mobile technology can aid your performance. If you don't, it can go the other way.”

Kirsten Sholl has seen it go the other way many times. An HR manager by training, she works for a consultancy called Right Management.

“Mobile technology can allow people who need to work flexibly to do so, but it can also create enormous pressure. The amount of emails sent over the weekend, late at night and early in the morning has increased,” she says.

Cisco’s system

In response to the increased pressure and freedom created by mobile technology, some employers have radically changed how they manage their people. One such company is IT giant Cisco Systems. The average Cisco employee now spends half his or her time working from home.

“The culture is now all about results,” says Charlie Johnston, head of human resources for EMEA at Cisco. “People are empowered to work how they want, where they want and whenever suits them. If someone likes doing all their emails on Sunday morning and then takes Wednesday afternoon to play golf, that’s fine.”

When embraced in such a way, mobile technology is allowing for greater job satisfaction and work-life balance. And it’s not only being used by Cisco, says Phil Montero, a Florida-based IT consultant.

“Many companies are embracing what they call ROWE – a results-only work environment – which in essence means that your working hours are much more under your control, providing that the work gets done,” he says.

Minards reports that Xerox has also adopted this approach: “We’re enabling people to do their real business. We want to implement technology in a way that helps them do their job better, not the other way round.”

Yet Cisco’s Johnston believes that such a model can work “only on the basis of leadership. Leaders have got to set the tone,” he says. “For some organisations, it used to be all about how early you got into work. Then it became what time people were sending their first and last emails. It should be up to the leader in such situations to say, ‘It doesn’t matter; it’s all about the results’.”

Sholl works with many companies on this problem and agrees that “a lot of this comes down to the organisation’s cultural expectations. If you have a CEO acting in a certain way, it sets a precedent for how others should behave.”

Organisations with inflexible cultures of “presenteeism” may find it harder to recruit and retain the best people. Indeed, Cisco’s external global research in 2011 found that 40 per cent US college students and 45 per cent of young employees would accept “a lower-paying job that had more flexibility with regard to device choice, social media access and mobility than a higher-paying job with less flexibility”.

Sleep mode

How can you ensure that people have a healthy work-life balance and can switch off when they need to? Minards says he reminds people that the technology “does have an off switch” but admits to “multi-screening” at home outside working hours, chatting with his global team online. He feels that his team is stronger for that.

When it comes to taking holiday, Johnston ensures that he’s incommunicado while on leave, giving his deputy full authority in his absence. He believes that his example empowers his staff to do the same.

For Sholl, checking emails on her phone for half an hour each day while on holiday helps her to relax in the knowledge that there’ll be less to do on her return.

“Switching off is interesting because there are two ways of doing it: actually switching off your device or mentally switching off from the need to consume information constantly,” Williams says. “I find it quite easy to do the former, but not the latter.” Perhaps information addiction is even greater than information overload. The trick, he says, can be to get a bit of perspective. “In reality very little of what we feel we need to keep up with is actually that important.”

When asked whether his job is easier or harder now than it was in 1995, Williams pauses a long time before answering: “It’s probably easier now that the technology is available to deliver the things that I can imagine. In 1995 I could only imagine the things that I deliver now.”

Five ways to get your life back

  1. Use the off button. Sometimes it can be as simple as turning your mobile device off, as Xerox's Darrell Minards points out: “Just because I’m phoning you on a weekend doesn’t mean you have to answer. You have a voicemail.” Many devices also have timers you can set so that you don't receive messages after or before a certain time of day.

  2. Isolate the problem. If you’re being overwhelmed, you need to pinpoint what is causing the most pressure, advises HR consultant Kirsten Sholl. A little training, on how best to use the technology or manage your time, can go a long way.

  3. Consolidate your kit. Increasingly you can use one device to do the job of many, says IT consultant Phil Montero. “You can filter email and social media messages so you can easily check and reply to them without feeling overwhelmed by too many systems.” The same applies to hardware: “Find one tool that can serve multiple purposes. Smartphones and tablets today can take the place of many devices.”

  4. Use the technology that suits the message. Don't feel pressured to use every latest tool, device or web-based community. Find what works best for the message you're trying to convey or receive. Short and snappy messages could suit Twitter or SMS; for personalised overviews, short you-tube style video messages; in-depth and urgent, high priority email. But you don’t need to use them all together.

  5. Find what works for you. As business becomes more about the individual and less about organisational procedures, you need to find what works best for you and your lifestyle. As Sholl says, “you need to be in control of your own work/life balance – if that means switching off for two weeks, then do it. If it means checking your phone every day to keep you calm and relaxed, then do it. Whatever works for you.”