Goodbye, 8-hour workday: Smartphones make it hard to escape the office

March 11, 2013 at 9:28 AM ET

Of course we’re more productive — we’re always “at work.”

In the wake of Yahoo and Best Buy ordering telecommuters back to the office, one of the strongest arguments for working from home is that it increases productivity. While nixing the commute and eliminating distractions certainly helps, there’s also another reason why the home office is so good for productivity.

The ubiquity of mobile devices today means that the “home office” has become more of a concept than a place. The dark underbelly of greater flexibility is that we find ourselves checking and responding to work email when we’re at the gym, out on dates and watching our kids’ soccer games.

“The technology that’s happened over the last decade or so is tremendous... but at the same time, I feel constantly connected now,” said James Wagner, a salesman at Rema Foods in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., who upgraded to a new BlackBerry about a year ago.

“You get conditioned to constantly be looking at the thing. For example, I get up in the morning... I’m literally still in bed and I’m checking emails.”

Statistics indicate that Wagner has plenty of company. Market research firm IDC predicts that 137 million smartphones will be shipped to the United States this year, a 14 percent increase over last year. According to the Pew Research Center, 45 percent of Americans now own a smartphone, and 31 percent own a tablet. College graduates and those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more are much likelier to own a smartphone.

As technology advances, mobile devices can do more — which lets us do more. In particular, the road to constant connectivity is paved with iPads.

“The smartphone is a little too little, the laptop is a little too big,” said Gil Gordon, author of "Turn It Off: How to Unplug from the Anytime-Anywhere Office Without Disconnecting Your Career." A tablet “hits the sweet spot there... Things you probably wouldn’t think of doing with a smartphone you can do on an iPad and don’t think twice about it.”

“Total USA tablet shipments reached 45.2 million units in 2012, up from 32.4 million in 2011,” Tom Mainelli, IDC Research Director, Tablets, said via email. “We're forecasting the U.S. market to hit 62.6 million units in 2013.”

Stefani Stankiewicz, an account manager at Manning Automotive Marketing in Wyckoff, N.J., replaced her Droid with an iPhone and got an iPad about a year ago. “I can do a lot more with the iPhone,” she said. “It’s a blessing and a curse.”

Stankiewicz said her devices give her near-constant contact with her job. “I have a G-chat app... Yesterday, I left early because my grandfather was in the hospital, and I was G-chatting with everybody,” she said.

American workers have been sold a promise that the constant access afforded by our mobile devices would give us more flexibility as to where and when we worked. The problem is that all these late-night and weekend emails aren’t replacing hours spent in the office — they’re adding to them.

“I call it my necessary evil,” Wagner said. “If I didn’t do that and keep up, it would be impossible to keep up with what’s getting thrown at me every day.”

A Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that between half and two-thirds of telecommuting hours are on top of a standard 40-hour workweek. “The ability of employees to work at home may actually allow employers to raise expectations for work availability during evenings and weekends and foster longer workdays and workweeks,” researchers warned.

While we could just turn off those devices when we’re eating dinner or on vacation, we don’t. A survey found that a third of people say they feel anxious when they can’t check their work email or voicemail for an “extended” period of time.

For an upcoming vacation, Stankiewicz said she planned to not check her work email, but admitted she might cave. “I’m going to really try not to. I might peek and check just to see what’s going on... because it’s right there.”

“It’s a double edged sword,” said Rob Smith, co-author of "Telework: A Critical Component of Your Total Rewards Strategy." “The technology has advanced more quickly than the policies and procedures in the workplace that would allow for a proper work-life balance. We haven’t found that right balance yet.”

Companies generally don’t come out and say they want their employees on-call 24/7, but some workers say there are clear signs from management that answering emails outside of work hours is encouraged if not outright expected.

Knowing that the boss is burning the midnight oil, for instance, can make employees feel obligated to do the same. Wagner said it wasn’t uncommon for his company’s president, with whom he works closely, to send him multiple emails on Sunday nights.

"He certainly works as hard as anyone... Without saying it, he certainly likes when you respond at any time. He likes to see that his people are always connected,” he said.

“In this economy, with so many people out of work, they’re almost afraid of not being seen as accessible and available and responsive,” Gordon said. “So they let the technology intrude at the dinner table or their kid’s soccer game.”

This spillover can cause tension in people’s personal relationships. “We’ll be sitting there, having dinner, and it’ll be sitting on the table,” Wagner said of his omnipresent BlackBerry. “My wife... has literally held it over a toilet before.”

“My boyfriend does complain that I’m on my phone answering emails a lot,” Stankiewicz said. “Am I being more productive or am I stopping myself from having a social life?”