Always-Connected, Tech Savvy -- and Happy?
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You see them everywhere. You might even be one: mobile warriors with a BlackBerry, pager and cell phone arranged in matching holsters around their waists.
They're the folks racing through the airport while negotiating deals over their cell phones, and zipping through the crowds on the way to a connecting flight.
They're also the ones logged into the corporate network at all hours of the night when, by any sane measure, they should be sleeping.
Statistics commissioned by The Conference Board illustrate that overall job satisfaction rates since 1995 have dropped from 60 percent to 50 percent. Of the 50 percent who are satisfied, only 14 percent claim to be "very satisfied" and 25 percent are only showing up to collect a paycheck.
One of the primary drivers of the job dissatisfaction rates cited in the study is rapid technological change.
In the office, workers have the convenience of instant messaging, e-mail, videoconferencing and collaboration tools to make them more efficient. And they take the technologies with them even when the work day ends.
It can lead to an always-connected conundrum, according to work researchers. The very technologies created during the heady early days of the dot-com boom to make our lives easier can become root causes for discontent.
"We've seen some rather dramatic changes in the workplace over the last 10 years," said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's consumer research center. "When you get this kind of blurring of lines of work and play, it's not necessarily a negative thing, but it becomes a negative one when the worker feels that it's exceeding personally acceptable levels."
Take the example of IMlogic, an instant messaging software management firm based in Waltham, Massachusetts. The company provides all the corporate trappings you would expect from a high-tech firm: good salary, bonuses, option grants, three weeks vacation time, full benefits and a strong corporate culture.
It also hands out BlackBerrys, laptops and cell phones to employees. Shelley Kolesar, IMlogic human resources manager, said it makes workers more flexible and allows them to use their time more productively.
But Kolesar and IMlogic executives also stress the importance of disconnecting, with policies designed to help employees unplug and unwind, such as quarterly company events away from the office.
Buckets of Joy in Information Overload?
To find a good example of always-connected taken to the extreme, look no further than the birthplace of high-tech: Silicon Valley.
Patti Wilson, a career coach catering to the high-tech industry in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, is sold on the improvements technology has brought to the business world. She also helps workers manage the downside of all that information, such as whether to take a vacation without answering e-mail or voicemail.
"This is something that I see ongoing with folks," she said. "With every new technology or communications tool that comes out, the worse it gets. You have to have the skill under your belt" to manage it.
John Mueller, a professor of applied psychology at the University of Calgary in Canada, said much of the problem is the result of managers making technology choices for the less tech-savvy employees.
"The end user is not typically involved in the selection or purchasing or even the testing of the stuff," Mueller said. "And then all of a sudden, they're the person who, if it doesn't work, gets blamed for it."
A Clean Break
So why isn't it so simple to just unplug in order to strike a balance? For some information junkies trying to do just that, there's another way.
William Williams, owner of the Aliso Creek Network, created a Web site called At Work and Bored in order to give workers a break from their jobs. It features puzzles, jokes and games, as well as entertainment like movie reviews, horoscopes and online tarot readings.
"I think it helps people get a little relief during the middle of the day; it's just like a coffee break or something like that," he said.
The site features a panic button, which opens a bogus spreadsheet. Williams said it's effective and used often, given the number of times his Web server logs have shown the spreadsheet page used as an exit.
Or you can do what Chon Ramirez did: buy your own smart phone, such as a Treo 600, and connect to the Internet for anything but work: catch up on the latest eBay auctions, find out what's new at Netflix.com and surf the Web. He's able to do all that whether in a meeting or behind a desk.
"More and more, our office was getting stringent about using the PC to check your personal e-mails," he said. "I can be sitting at my desk and doing things like shopping Amazon or checking e-mail without using [company] resources."
A more simple measure is to just pull the plug, said University of Calgary's Meuller, and while processing some non-computerized inputs, try not to think about all the information you might be missing.
"It takes some discipline to just decide that for the next four hours I'm not going to answer the phone."