Balanced diet?

MIT Sloan team weighs the implications of BlackBerries and other “smart phones” for individuals and organizations

Blackberry smart photo against a backdrop of fruit

There's no question the BlackBerry and other so-called “smart phones” have had a tremendous impact on how, when, and where we do work. But the “CrackBerry” phenomenon (a nickname spawned out of the addictive pull of the constant communication such devices allow) is having an equally large impact on the workplace landscape, affecting expectations of work turnaround, employee availability, personal interactions, and the increasingly rare notion of free time.

A recent research study conducted by MIT Sloan Professors Wanda Orlikowski and JoAnne Yates and doctoral student Melissa Mazmanian sought to look beyond the incredible popularity of the BlackBerry and examine just how the device is used in people's communication practices, as well as the individual and organizational implications of such usage.

By spending several months studying BlackBerry usage at a small, prestigious private equity firm in the U.S., the MIT Sloan team was able to discern the unwritten rules and expectations that go hand-in-hand with using such a device.

No wasted moments

Four years ago, Plymouth Investments [a fictitious name to protect the privacy of the company] provided BlackBerrys to all its employees. While Plymouth is committed to the idea of work-life balance, the nature of its work in financial services is fast paced, requiring a great deal of autonomous, mobile work and extensive interactions via e-mail.

Ideally, the availability of the BlackBerry would help employees to work more efficiently by allowing them constant access to e-mail and other forms of communication.

And there's the added bonus of being able to do such work during “wasted” moments, like waiting for clients, traveling in cars or elevators, standing in line at the supermarket, or sitting in a church pew, to name just a few. By taking advantage of such previously “unproductive” times, more work is getting done quicker, and, in theory, designated free time can truly be free.

But as the researchers discovered, the attraction of constant connection is very strong, and once people are plugged in, they often find it hard to tune out. In addition to staying connected to the office while on the road during business hours, most members of the firm admitted to carrying their BlackBerrys with them on evenings and weekends and checking them regularly.

Ninety percent of the firm's employees described their behavior with the device as something akin to compulsion, confessing to an inability to refrain from checking the device. What results is a gradual blurring of the lines between “work time” and “personal time.”

Peer pressure

While individual personalities and work habits certainly play a role in how people interact with their BlackBerrys, the effect of the group dynamic in a firm such as Plymouth cannot be underestimated.

All Plymouth employees know that their colleagues have BlackBerrys. Although constant e-mail monitoring is not mandated by the firm, the usage norm has become for all employees to check e-mail frequently. This has created an environment in which checking e-mail at night and over the weekends has become the rule rather than the exception.

According to one employee, “I think we've all gotten used to answering each other instantly because of the BlackBerry, but it's not expected.”

Another states, “I think people begin to build expectations ... of what your response time is going to be.”

And then there is the nature of e-mail itself. Perceived as far less obtrusive than other forms of communication, it is utilized with increasing frequency. Combine that with the ease of sending and receiving messages through the BlackBerry and the firm members' willingness to be in regular communication, and e-mail activity can easily intensify and bleed into off-hours.

Says one Plymouth employee, “It brings responsiveness on nights and weekends to the level of responsiveness generally during work time.”

According to the research findings, the perceived difficulty of disconnecting from such group communication relates directly to the shared knowledge of who uses a BlackBerry.

Where are you?

When it comes to the BlackBerry phenomenon, the old adage “you can't be two places at once” should be amended to include, “you can't focus on two things at once very well either.”

In part due to its addictive pull, users often engage more with their BlackBerrys than with people in the same room. The frequent outcome is a withdrawal from the present, resulting in compromised interactions and the potential for missing important information.

In an effort to temper such BlackBerry-induced distractions, Plymouth, like many firms, has sought to limit or prohibit use of the device during meetings. However, the pervasive attraction of the device yielded only a temporary hiatus before full-blown usage crept back in.

Happy addicts

This study focused on a specific firm in a particularly fast-paced industry, but the overall usage patterns and resultant expectations can be found in businesses of varying sizes and focus.

While clearly allowing for increased mobility and flexibility during work hours, BlackBerry usage also creates expectations of responsiveness that spill over into non-work time.

While interviewees in this study described their “compulsion to check messages” as a matter of individual choice, the MIT Sloan team found “their statements reveal underlying expectations of one another.”

“After some probing, [interviewees] recognize the relationship between shared expectations, unobtrusive e-mail, and the lack of temporal/physical boundaries on messages with stress, burnout, and difficulties in changing.”

Yet even after recognizing the downsides of BlackBerry usage, the group at Plymouth perceives the benefits as outweighing the costs, and after four years of usage, the overall reaction is very positive.

Says one senior support staff member, “It's a double-edged sword, but the benefits, for me at any rate, far outweigh anything that I might every once in a while think to myself [laugher] ‘Just go away; just shush and go away.’ ”

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