There is growing unrest among managers who notice employees dealing with non-work related tasks and occupations during business hours. Those who complain about the growing place assigned to personal activities during office hours commonly blame it all on the workforce’s lack of discipline. In their eyes, personnel cannot resist making the most of the multiple connections offered by modern communications. As a result, they surf the Internet while answering professional emails, listen to music while compiling reports or tweet non-stop with friends while attending a meeting. Most remarkable is the fact that this new wave of management discontent follows older discontent expressed a decade or two ago by employees (and often by their relatives) who used to complain of how work life ‘infected’ the family sphere. There was a time when costly mobile phones and Internet connections were paid for by the company to allow employees to keep in touch with the office on a permanent basis. Some would therefore argue that before the office started to be colonised by personal activities, the reverse was true and what was once perceived as a contagion of the private sphere by the professional world is now seen as perfectly natural. Boundaries between work and private life are becoming more and more blurred. It is neither new nor original to say so but it is glaringly true. In short, it could be that providing smartphones to allow employees to be contactable at any moment is producing unintended consequences that are even the opposite of what was intended.
What has perhaps not been suggested before is that the cause of this gradual two-way intrusion in private and business lives comes from the fact that both our personal and professional lives now pass by the same space: the screen. In other words, we perhaps need to take very literally the expression that there is no boundary anymore between private and professional occupations as the two take place on the same laptops, tablets and smartphones. Of course there is currently a surge in the range of supports that give us access to our professional and personal networks and applications on-line. All these devices actually grant us access to the same content with more and more ease and in more and more situations. So, why is this on-going technical revolution not solely reinforcing work’s invasion of family life (as in the past) but is also having the opposite effect?
One respect in which modern screens are radically different from their predecessors is that they are multifaceted. Where former devices simply granted access at distance to the (virtual) office, more recent technology allows us to be simultaneously in different places, with different people, taking part in different practices. We all experience on a daily basis simultaneous phone calls with the family and the boss, or the same effect when juggling friends and suppliers. Keeping almost constant track of the work screen, one or two mailboxes, skype and a couple of social networks makes such situations both natural and unavoidable. Employees are bound to have more interruptions during their work as they use the same avenues for doing that work as they explore in their social life. If this is a valid description of a common work environment, it can also be argued that it differs little from what constitutes a large number of home environments. How many of us answer professional requests on a Sunday while surfing initially for leisure purposes on the Internet? The screen has become a platform, an agora, where we may encounter just about anyone, colleagues and friends, at just about any time.
The worrying aspect of such an evolution is that being engaged in several activities at the same time tends to be very demanding and sometimes almost too complicated. Millions of office workers worldwide deal on a daily basis with a massive amount of private and professional emails, private and professional Powerpoint presentations, private and professional alerts, phone calls, deadlines and other images and documents, created, viewed and managed via a screen. The crucial question is therefore to understand when such members of the workforce decide to be employees, or friends, or colleagues, or spouses etc. depending on the short-term solicitations they choose to deal with.
Attention can be split but loses sharpness in the process. Most often attention should focus on one task at a time. In practice, it passes quite quickly from one activity to another concentrating on each for a very short period of time. Even so, priorities have to be given to those tasks deemed the most pressing. Too often, it is not the nature of the task that gives a notion of its urgency but rather the media by which it arrives. An email is usually considered less urgent than a phone call; a tweet is faster to answer than a post in a blog, etc. The different media therefore compete for our attention and there is a tendency to simplify requests and make them easily visible. A message that is glaringly visible and can be solved quickly is much more likely to be dealt with than one that is understated and requires more effort. An extreme example of this is can be seen in some modern management software that requires users to turn red signals into green ones.
In the past, this kind of context, typical of the office, contrasted with the familiar world of the home seen as an escape from the flow of digital demands. It hardly needs to be stated that today computer technology pervades all aspects of society including both the work and personal spheres. As a result, the two environments tend to merge and to have less and less physical or temporal boundaries. In short, all our worlds feel the influence of the same few screens. Indeed, one now has to be schizophrenic to be able to simultaneously satisfy the roles of employee and private individual. Only those people who simply live to work and those who do not work at all escape this dichotomy. Many will view such a state of affairs as progress. However, this is debatable if one considers the effect a computer-defined world has on the link individuals establish between their work and its environment both within and outside the office.
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