The Impact of Technology on Our Work and Family Lives

I've been thinking a lot about the impact of information and communication technology (ICT) on our work and family lives and continue to be fascinated by this topic. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reported this September that, "on the eve of Apple's unveiling of the iPhone 5, 45% of American adults own smartphones." This reflects a 10% increase from May 2011. In addition, "smartphones are particularly popular with young adults and those living in relatively higher income households; 66% of those ages 18-29 own smartphones, and 68% of those living in households earning $75,000 also own them."

Add to the mix that in early 2012, "88% of American adults have a cell phone, 58% have a desktop computer, 61% have a laptop, 18% own an e-book reader, and 18% have a tablet computer," according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

As we celebrate National Work and Family month, I'm wondering how increasing usage of ICT affects and will continue to impact today's working families.

ICT at home: ICT permeates family life, especially for married couples with minor children, says a Pew Internet survey. ICT helps today's busy families stay connected with each other. Parents can check in with kids at all times to see where they are and what they are doing. Kids can easily reach parents if there is an emergency or a problem. However, ICT can also keep families apart. Imagine today's family gathered in the kitchen for dinner. Maybe the TV is on, a laptop on the kitchen counter and everyone has their phone with them. Mom and dad are keeping an eye on emails even though the work day is technically over. So this family is physically together, but they are not totally focused on and paying attention to each other. They are at least partially attentive to a ping or a beep indicating that there is a new text message, email or missed call.

Maggie Jackson describes how ICT can make it difficult to focus, pay attention and connect with others in her book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.

ICT at work: For many, work is no longer something we do at a certain time or place; work can be anytime, and anywhere. Technology blurs the boundaries between home and work and can negatively impact employees and their commitment to their organizations, as well as their partners, and children.

A 2010 study found that more frequent use of ICT (computer, email, cell phones, Internet) results in being more effective at work, but also generates increases in work load and the pace of work demands. In a subsequent paper, 83% of workers indicated that ICT increases productivity, but 53% describe greater stress levels.

Nicholas Carr suggests that frequent internet usage interferes with working productively and creatively as well as reduces our ability to read anything longer than a few paragraphs in, Is Google Making Us Stupid?.

Some organizations are "attempting to flip the off switch" with forced restrictions from ICT and its 24/7 connections. In Germany, Volkswagen plans to deactivate emails during non-work hours. Deutsche TeleKom vowed to not expect workers to read email after business hours at certain points during the week. Leslie Perlow in her book, Sleeping with your Smartphone, described a successful experiment with consultants at the Boston Consulting Group. One work team took off one full day a week, while another group had one evening off when they did not check email after 6 pm. Benefits resulted for everyone - the individuals, the teams and their work, and the organization.

But are ICT restrictions the answer? I might find it beneficial to work one evening, so I could take care of a personal or family matter during the day. Or I could leave early, if I got a jump start on my work the prior evening.

So how can we use ICT to our advantage - for increased productivity, reduced stress, and better work+life fit? We'll need our organizations to pitch in by providing guidelines about expectations and strategies for effectively managing our devices. And we will need to confer with our managers and colleagues to figure out how our work groups can use ICT to promote collaboration and working smarter. Lastly, we'll have to figure out how we can shut off and shut down without feeling like we will be viewed as unmotivated slackers and look for our adrenaline rush elsewhere.