August 23rd, 2011 | 6:00 am

Being Fully Present: How to Avoid the Technology and Work/Life Clash

filed under Work-Life

iStock_000006926918XSmallBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

Last year we may have “officially” declared that technology helps work/life balance. But there’s also the flip side: for example, a new study by specialist insurer, Hiscox, found that only 5 percent of the 304 people surveyed reported not working on weekends and only 3 percent keep their mobile devices away from both the bedroom and dinner table. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 83 percent of American adults own some kind of cell phone – and the Hiscox study shows a lot of people find it difficult to switch off once they’re at home.

Many are divided on whether new communication devices help or hinder work/life balance. For some, smart phones, tablets, web cams, and other gadgets are freeing, offering them more flexibility in their work schedule by enabling them to work remotely. For others, the fact that bosses, co-workers, or employees can find them anytime, anywhere, everywhere, feels a lot like being on call 24/7 and constantly being shackled to their metaphorical desk. According to leadership expert and management consultant Eileen McDargh, communication technology is a wonderful, terrible thing.

McDargh wrote the book on work/life balance – literally. Her book Work for a Living & Still Be Free to Live, published in 1985, is considered the first book on work/life balance and according to the expert, when people say they’re “struggling” with work/life balance, it means they’re exhausted.

“I have grave concerns about technology,” McDargh said. “If we choose to be connected 24/7, it can hinder the work we hope to accomplish, damage the relationships we hope to discover, and it stalls us from thinking critically; technology has us thinking at a very flat, shallow level. Because of technology, we have to make an extra effort to develop our own pace. First the pendulum swung too far to the right. Now it’s swinging too far to the left. We need to make it swing back to the center.”

Swinging Back To Center

So how does one do that; how do we center ourselves; how do we become fully present in a world full of static, noise, and endless, fleeting electronic interactions?

As with most things in life, honesty is the best policy. People – bosses and co-workers in particular – will assume you’re always available unless you tell them otherwise. McDargh herself takes a brutally honest approach. When she is spending one-on-one time with a client, she creates an e-mail auto responder saying, “I am with a client and will not be answering e-mails. When I return, you will receive the same undivided attention.”

One of the biggest cons of technology is its ability to put us on auto pilot. While mindlessly sending out dozens of e-mails each day and halfheartedly responding to a dozen more, we lose sight of the purpose of our work, the goals of the day. Essentially, like many of the e-mails we’re sending out, we get lost in the shuffle.

This is why McDargh believes we have to make firm decisions about how and when we respond to e-mails/texts/instant messages, etc. We are living in a world where work and life are constantly blurred. It’s not necessarily good or bad, but to keep ourselves from going crazy and to have some semblance of work/life balance, we must be clear, up front, and have harder boundaries.

It’s simpler than some are willing to admit.

Do not bring work home with you. Do not check any work-related e-mails, text messages, or voicemails past 7 p.m. Make it known to those you work with that when you are spending weekends with your family, work-related matters are off limits. These things don’t have to be easier said than done. According to McDargh, they simply have to get done if you want any chance of having a personal life, spending meaningful time with your friends and family, or being able to decompress, disconnect, and breathe easy without being tethered to work all day every day.

The leadership expert also recommends taking an honest approach with your boss.

“If your boss thinks it’s okay to text or e-mail you at midnight, send a polite, yet firm response. Something to the effect of, ‘I could respond to your request at this hour, but I am not working at my full potential and you will not be getting me at my best. If you could wait until 7 or 8 a.m., I will be fully present, capable of being more clear and concise, and able to accomplish whatever task you need. At this hour, you will only receive some of my brain and none of my heart.’”

Pros & Cons

Communication technology has many pros. In many cases it’s eliminated the need to travel, as, for example, Skype meetings are becoming more common. It enables us to get information in a timely fashion. It can create connections in real time, doing away with time zones and timelines. On the other hand, technology can feel cold and it can keep us from forming meaningful connection. It causes us to mindlessly send out messages that are incomplete, unclear, and anything but concise just because we can and because clicking “send” is much easier than picking up the phone and actually having a conversation with someone.

Essentially, technology is what you make of it. If you are conscious of how it can hinder work/life balance and you make a concerted effort to rein it in and not abuse it or allow it to abuse you, it can be a beautiful thing that provides you with flexibility and the ability to work remotely. As McDargh said, you have to learn to make technology work for you; you shouldn’t be working harder for it.

“We have to learn to make adjustments,” McDargh said. “Know what’s important to you and figure out how to utilize technology in a way that helps you honor your priorities. Use technology to help you accomplish your goals and once your goals are met for the day, turn everything off and walk away- and using auto responders wisely doesn’t hurt.”

4 comments

  1. AJ

    I agree with McDargh’s comment. Learning to manage technology is difficult, especially when superiors do not manage theirs and have expectations for their subordinates’ availability through technology.

  2. Stacey Hanke

    I agree that technology has immensely changed how we do business and our expectations of response times. With phone, text, email and social media we are almost always “connected”. I appreciate the suggestion about how to respond to the people who send the text at midnight. Communicating is hard enough but when you add the technology piece it can get very complicated!

  3. Mary Foley

    It is such a challenge to manage work and life and then when you add in the technology which keeps us all connected 24 hours a day the line blurs. I love what was said about setting boundaries and making them known. Given the opportunity, people will take advantage of your “availability”, family should come first. Thanks for the article – I could really relate to it. Cheers!

  4. Monica

    While the general advice here is useful – i.e., setting limits to how much work affects your home life – some of the specific advice is potentially harmful. If I send a work-related e-mail, I do not expect an immediate response. If I were to get a reply in the form of “I got your e-mail, but I’m busy right now and will get to it later,” I would not be happy. I have enough e-mail communication every day that I don’t need auto-responses filling up my inbox. Same thing for the boss who e-mails at midnight. If the boss chooses to work at midnight, that’s their choice – they’re not necessarily expecting an immediate response. There’s no need to send a reply e-mail with “Yes, I’m checking my e-mail, but no I’m not going to respond.”

    I think the best policy is just to set your limits and stick to them. If you’re busy, or it’s the weekend, or if it’s too late at night, just don’t respond to the e-mail/voicemail/text. No auto-response, nothing. Then respond in a timely manner the next morning while at work. The only possible exception is when the boss makes the matter sound urgent when it’s not. Then a return e-mail saying, “I will address this issue tomorrow”, might be warranted.