Lounging by the poolside last summer vacation, I thought nothing could disturb the tranquil ambience of lapping water and the steady heat of the sun. With Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams in my hands and cabana music wafting over from the beachside snack shack down the road, life felt paradisiacal. Then it came: the dissonant sound of my father’s smartphone, buzzing on the chaise nearby. Not again . . . I thought, moaning as I got up to retrieve for him what turned out to be ten new emails from coworkers, filling my dad in on the latest work happenings as if he were still on the clock. Footloose and carefree, I needed a few minutes for my summer-slump mind to realize the obvious—that with technology at our fingertips virtually anywhere, we’re always on the clock.
I might have been offended by the interjection of my dad’s coworkers into our family vacation, but in reality this is a development that has become quite normal with the rise of internet accessibility. Many workers appreciate the constant updates, which give them time to do preliminary work before their clocked time and keep them updated in case clients spontaneously ask to be filled in on progress. But this new caliber of work responsibility begs the question: Are people actually more invested in their work in the digital age, willing to put in extra personal hours to generate the best end product possible? Or is this always-on work ethic fueled by an anxiety to relinquish control and fear of consequences?
Perhaps it’s a mix of both. According to Karen Riley-Grant, a marketing director who has worked with various global brands, her choice to be always available stems not from employer pressure but from both a passion for her job and a fear of losing it. “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.” With high-stakes jobs like Riley-Grant’s, it’s hard for workers to disconnect from email and phone calls when trying to achieve the best final outcome.
This inescapability of work in the digital age is especially difficult for those with families. The demand from work and private responsibilities around the clock frequently requires that the two mix. For certain IT employees, this work demand is often strict. Robert Sample, a former senior technical analyst for Cox Media Group, has seen rapid change in the immediacy of work communication. “When I started in the 1998-to-1999 time frame, a person would be on call for a week, and typically you might get one or two contacts during off-hours,” says Sample. “Over the last few years, the change has been toward immediate responsiveness and more active involvement.” By the end of his time with Cox Media, Sample was issued a Blackberry that pinged him with an email alert when a trouble ticket was started. “Our SLA [service-level agreement] specified a response within four hours no matter what,” he says. “That goal didn’t even consider whether it was [during] work hours.”
As employees grow more aware of their own place within the always-on culture, many have developed ways to cope with work expectations while also reserving time for private life. Sample has found time to get off the grid by simply not giving himself the option of plugging in. “I’ve started taking a cruise every year,” he says. “You get a few miles offshore, and cellphones don’t work. That way, you can take a vacation and not have to worry about problems until you get back.”
Although for some jobs, being always on is necessary to keep up with high demands and global communication, for others, it might not be worth the sacrifices in one’s personal life. Maintaining a sense of balance and control over the areas in life to which we devote our time is integral to both a healthy work and private life. Although some of us like the adrenaline rush of constantly available data and communication, taking the time to connect with our present place in time is just as rewarding.
Did You Know?
Next time you’re quick to grab your mobile device during a dinner date or when visiting a friend, think again! Persistent texts and emails may drive an impulse to check your phone frequently, which can detract from whatever present moment you’re currently engaged in. As Mark Glaser writes for PBS’s MediaShift, “The unspoken subtext of checking text messages in front of friends is: ‘Somewhere else there is someone who I care about more than you. I want to know what they have to say more than what you have to say to me now.’ . . . We devalue our current situation, the friends and family around us, our surroundings and setting, for something going on somewhere else.”
Here are some more tips on smartphone etiquette to help successfully coexist in the digital age.