Who Has Control Over Your Time?

There’s been an avalanche of research over the last several years about the increasingly blurry lines between work and personal life, lines that have smudged to the point where they’re no longer blurry – they’re non-existent. Think about it: when was the last time you went a full Saturday – or even a full Sunday afternoon, or even a full traffic light – without checking your mobile device for work communication? In fact, that reminds me, it’s been a few minutes since I’ve checked mine. Wait here for one moment, and then I’ll continue that thought.

Okay. Where was I? Right. Work. Blurred lines. Traffic lights. The constant flow of information.

We may have reached the point where free time is like ashtrays on airplanes: something we can all point to laughingly and talk about how cute it was when people used to use it, but now a fossilized example of a bygone era. Are we compressing too much into what used to be quaintly known as “free time”?

Well, yes and no. And the answer depends on control.

But let’s back up for a second and provide a little context before we get to that. According to “The @Work State of Mind,” a recent study by Forbes Insights and global ideas shop gyro, a mere two percent of employees – from managers all the way up to CEOs – never work weekends or nights. And 44% work most or every weekend and night.

It’s not just about staying on top of email outside of work, it’s everything. Gone are the days when people were tethered to little blinking Blackberries that received and sent emails, but didn’t do much else. Now people have straightjackets made of smartphones and tablets, making it possible to do pretty much anything outside the office that one can do inside it - and making it impossible not to - in one fell swoop.

Fully 63% of respondents to the study checked their email at least every one- to two hours when they weren’t at work – and 12% checked email outside the office a whopping five times an hour. Six in 10 reported making business decisions at home and 53% routinely stepped away from dinner or other family gatherings to deal with business issues, while just 3% said they never sent or received an email while on vacation. Employees are now in a position to read, research, do anything and everything, any time and everyplace, from the dinner table to the soccer field, from the elliptical machine to the delivery room. And just because they can, they now know they should.

“There’s no more off switch,” Tom Nightingale, president, sales and marketing for ModusLink Global Solutions, a technology service provider based in Waltham, Massachusetts, noted in the report. “There are very few people who are not checking emails or receiving social media while at work, school, commuting, or at the sidelines of their kids’ sporting events.”

It’s getting to the point where we can’t even turn it off when we’re at work. How many of us have sat in a meeting surrounded by co-workers who place smartphones or tablets on the table like weaponry (sometimes two or three devices per person), only to spring into action the moment the little light starts blinking to indicate an incoming message? We can’t even stop the flow of work when we’re doing other work, let alone when we’re not.

Indeed, 52% of individuals surveyed by Forbes Insights and gyro said they receive business information around the clock. There’s no more “open” or “closed” sign. Free time is experiencing a Viking funeral of sorts; we’re setting fire to it and pushing it off to sea, waving as it floats away into oblivion, never to be seen again.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least not to everyone. Those who have taken this development in stride and thrived from it have a much different mindset than those who’ve gotten swept up despite their best efforts to the contrary.

In fact, the simplest way to predict how you feel about the round-the-clock nature of business today is your answer to one simple question: are you the one receiving those emails outside of typical office hours, or are you the one sending them? The receivers tended to feel more negative about the situation, because they’re the ones getting the commands – while the senders tended to feel productive and accomplished. And why not? They’re getting things done! They’re delegating tasks and checking things off their list! They’re taking control.

And that’s just it: control. Receivers have less control.

This makes perfect sense: you’re far likelier to enjoy eating your vegetables when you’re the one who gets to pick them out, plan the menu and cook them to your taste than you are when you’re the kid sitting at the table, being told you’re not allowed to leave until you finish.

Those who expressed positive feelings about the onslaught of information – the ones who said it made them feel more productive, enabled and energized – were likelier to be C-level executives or business owners. Those who reported negative feelings about the blurred borders between work and personal time, on the other hand, were significantly likelier to feel resigned, irritated and shackled. And they were likelier to be middle- or lower management.

Those least likely to feel in control are those at the vice president/director level, where 42% report negative feelings about the onslaught of work information at all hours. The larger the company they worked for, the more likely these individuals were to report feeling a lack of control. This group is squeezed on all sides – they’re the recipients of emails and expectations from senior executives above, and must balance a need to meet those expectations with a respect for the personal time of the employees below. No wonder they feel so much less positive about the situation.

C-levels and business owners may have it the best of all. Aside from delegating, they also find themselves copied on a lot of emails, allowing them to monitor what’s going on without having to respond. Rather than being a list of tasks, it’s a true flow of information. This helps them make decisions, as they’re no longer dependent on their direct reports to update them about what’s going on through weekly meetings or status reports – but it also further wrests control from their subordinates, who can no longer decide what – and when – to tell their bosses. Senior executives can now get far more involved.

Again, whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on which side of the equation you’re located.

But another, more complex variable in the equation is the motivations behind why one is working around the clock. Those motivated by personal reasons – ambition, the desire to advance – were far likelier to feel empowered by the never-ending stream of business information than those who felt they were being pushed into it by corporate expectations, no matter their title or rank.

Put simply, they’re taking control of their career path.

And this bleeds into attitudes toward work as well. Those who felt more in control of the constant, steady stream of work-related information and communications were likelier than those who felt a lack of control to say they were able to separate work and personal time – despite working the same number of hours. They were less overwhelmed by it all, and felt the extra information made it easier for them to make decisions. Some even felt inspired and freed by it.

With so many people working remotely anyway, it’s almost quaint to even discuss the notion of “outside the office” or “in the office.” “I don’t even know that I make that distinction,” Lauren Flaherty, EVP and CMO of Juniper Networks, said in the report about making decisions in or out of the office. “You make them where and when you need to make them.”

People can now make fully informed work-related decisions everywhere. There’s now never a time when you can’t have everything you need to make a fully-articulated choice about work.  In fact, most of the time you don’t even need to ask the question anymore. The answer appears in a millisecond. The question is, are you happy about harnessing it?

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check my email. It’s been 30 minutes.


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