Are we becoming too connected for our own good?

New research sheds light on the dark side to being on call

Today's professionals are constantly connected to devices – mobile phones, iPads, computers, wearables. And hyper-connectivity is celebrated; this new connected world allows us to operate globally, to respond quickly, to be more efficient, and to work more flexibly.

But there is growing evidence that 'always on' connectivity is becoming unsustainable and taking a huge toll on our lives.

The real-life pain of connectivity is the focus of a new research paper, Materiality of Connectivity in the Networked Society: A Sociomaterial Perspective, co-authored by Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic, a professor in the school of information systems, technology and management at UNSW Business School

"We really didn't expect that connectivity may bring people to the brink and lead to breakdowns," Cecez-Kecmanovic says. "The phenomenon of constant connectivity has intruded into people's lives to a degree that for many has become unbearable."

There is a growing acknowledgement that managing the downside of connectivity can't be left to the affected professionals, and that organisations and businesses need to act at an institutional level. But in an intensely competitive global environment, is that likely?

Operating in a hyper-connected world blurs the boundaries between work and personal life. It has been facilitated by technology, but brutal business demands to achieve ever higher productivity also require it.

"There is more pressure than ever before to increase productivity and for business models to adapt; the pace of change is so fast," says Vanessa Harding-Farrenberg, joint managing director of recruitment firm Morgan McKinley, in Australia. "As a professional in the market, there are more things that you're across than ever before."

Last year Morgan McKinley released a survey that found that some 82% of professionals continued to work at home and on mobile devices.

Impact on wellbeing

Until recently, the focus has been on the productivity benefits of connectivity. But what about the personal impact of always being on call?

"Most people rarely reflect on the phenomenon," Cecez-Kecmanovic says. "But it matters much more in people's lives than has been realised."

Previous academic research into the impact of connectivity has been negligible. "We really didn't find any study that went deeper into the issue and tried to explain why it impacts our lives to such a degree," Cecez-Kecmanovic says.

Her study focused on professionals, the pioneers in embracing connectivity, and she notes that connectivity has changed the very notion of being a professional.

"Professionals we interviewed in our research feel growing expectations that you have to be constantly connected; that you have to be available all the time like vets and doctors who have to attend to their patients when needed.

"But that has implications for people's wellbeing and people's lives; for their ability to do their job; for their ability to function in their private lives and to be partners and parents, and so on," Cecez-Kecmanovic says.

'Norms and rules have to be established which will protect individuals and organisations from the negative implications'


Like a drug

With her colleagues – Sebastian Boell and John Campbell – Cecez-Kecmanovic  conducted lengthy interviews with a string of professionals including a business analyst consultant, IT research manager, commercial manager and senior software developer.

'Emma' is a new HR director in a large research organisation with offices throughout Australia; she's in her forties, married with three children.

"It's like a drug almost, that you feel you have to respond. It's nothing for me to still be messaging people late at night or checking my phone at 4am. I'm worried that I might miss something but it's just ridiculous isn't it? I mean no one is dying," she says.

'Carl', a self-employed research economist who started an international consultancy with four colleagues, has been at family meals where everyone is talking but he's had his finger in one ear and his Blackberry in the other. "It's taken a toll on my private life," he says.

Harding-Farrenberg agrees connectivity is having a negative impact, particularly on family life. Some 92% of respondents of her firm's survey said extra hours have some impact, or impact heavily, on their personal lives.

On the radar

Cecez-Kecmanovic believes the first step in grappling with connectivity is recognising there is an issue.

 "It seems we're just celebrating network connectivity all the time. But this research is raising awareness that there is an individual human aspect to connectivity which isn't sustainable and that may lead to more harm than good," she says.

The problem is at least on the radar of business. A Deloitte survey of global executives found the "overwhelmed" employee with too much access was a top-five priority. But fewer than one in 10 thought they were dealing with it effectively.

"It's an issue organisations don't really know what to do about," says Juliet Bourke, a human capital partner at Deloitte. Ironically, she notes that connectivity is making senior executives too busy to deal with the impact of hyper-connectivity and that the practical response to the issue has been "spotty".

Cecez-Kecmanovic points out that some unions in Europe are proposing that employers not be allowed to send emails to employees after 6pm.

 "At a broader level, certain norms and rules have to be established which will protect individuals and organisations from the negative implications of this; it just can't go on increasing as it tends to," she says.

 A bearable degree

Change at the institutional level could be glacial. So what can professionals do for themselves?

Cecez-Kecmanovic says it's difficult to define general rules, but the first step would be a mature reflection on the issue to understand what it means for them to be constantly connected.

The next step is to establish boundaries and rules to limit connectivity to "a bearable degree". Many would protest that this is impossible, but some of the professionals Cecez-Kecmanovic and her colleagues interviewed are finding a way.

'Helen', an IT designer, says that in the technology industry "there's this general sense that a tidal wave is coming your way and you're constantly trying to get on top of it". 

"But you can never ride that wave because there are constantly new trends. I think the whole IT industry is just eating itself, there's a lot of hot air and a lot of trying to keep ahead of the wave. Now that I'm in my forties I can see that there's no balance. It's really destructive and I think relationships and family life suffers, I know mine has."

But Helen is making an effort not to be so connected.

"I'm not on the computer after hours now and if I have to answer a work email I feel really hassled.  So for me, keeping the balance is getting simpler whereas in the past I felt addicted," she says.

Bourke agrees professionals need to manage the situation and avoid the "seductive vortex of information" and that "creating boundaries for yourself is even more important than previously".

Says Cecez-Kecmanovic: "We seem to forget that we are just humble human beings that have limitations in the hours available to work and the lives we live. Many companies now have expectations an employee has to be available 24/7. That is not sustainable."


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