Mobile Technology Use and Ubiquitous Availability: is agency work "professional"?

This post is adapted from my longer academic work. Granted, it’s a bit longer than most blog posts, but if you want to know how mobile technology is affecting work, read on. I explain

  • how the right of workers to have a firm division between private and working time is an essential element to work. Yet this right is quite troubled by the emergence of new mobile technologies.
  • how “professionals” have sacrificed private time for increased autonomy at work
  • technology is not a “neutral” choice but a function of the existing social relations of where you work
  • how workers in a case study industry (interactive agencies) deal with mobile technology and how it affects their private lives
  • whether “ubiquitous availability” actually results in “professional” workplace autonomy
  • why individual strategies of resistance won’t work and recommendations for companies that want to be competitive employers

  • Introduction

Mobile technologies present a confounding development in one of the defining debates in the study of work: the division between work time and private time. The use of immobile technologies, from factory machines to desktop computers, has contributed to the spatial centralization of work on the one hand (Marglin, 1974) and to firm divisions between work and home and the other (Zerubavel, 1979). But the widespread adoption of cellular phones, laptop computers, wireless Internet, and mobile email devices, this spatial rigidity has broken down, complicating a central tenet implicit in most employment relationships: the right of workers to restrict access.

In most Western workplaces “…the individual has the right to claim control over his social accessibility during his private-time as a sort of possession” (Zerubavel, 1990, p. 171). The ability to possess and protect private time is indicative of worker’s autonomy in private life. It is autonomy over one’s work that differentiates a profession from a mere occupation, as is the ability to exercise exclusive control over a specific body of knowledge (Friedman, 2000; Greenwood, 1957; Larson, 1977) . Contradictorily, professionals with a great deal of work-time autonomy find their private-time autonomy compromised by expectations of continuous availability to work. Mobile technologies make it possible for home/work division to be more easily broken. Indeed, this was first noticed with doctors’ use of beepers, which represented a much lower threshold of “invasion” than did a personal telephone call to a doctor’s home (Zerubavel, 1990).

In this post, I investigate how mobile technologies affect the division between work and home among interactive agency workers. I find that the use of mobile technologies do indeed break down the home/work division, but their use alone does not necessarily result in this break down. Rather, it is the underlying social relations of workplaces that affect how individuals negotiate the use of these technologies in non-work time and space, with more senior workers having the power to manage the work of others in addition to having increased autonomy than junior workers.

  • Technology is not a neutral choice

Technology scholars have characterized technology as essentially liberating (e.g., Pool, 1983), responsible for widespread social change (White, 1978) or dehumanizing (Ellul & Illich, 1995). All of these scholars share a deterministic view of technology, conferring upon it the agency to change social structures somehow outside of its own social context. Others scholars reject this view and argue that that technology does not emerge exogenously from its social context. This school of thought — often referred to as the social construction of technology (SCOT) school of technology studies — attributes both technology’s design and its effects primarily to its social context. I take SCOT as my theoretical starting point, arguing that the use of mobile technologies in a workplace is necessarily reflective of the social relations within that organization.

The SCOT approach emphasizes the interplay between technology and organizations. The organization shapes the technology and the technology shapes the organizations. This notion of a mutual constitutional relationship highlights the mistaken belief that introducing technology into an organization is a neutral choice. Social assumptions are built into what kinds of technology are chosen, and technologies, once introduced, have unintentional organizational consequences (Williams & Edge, 1996).

  • What we don’t know about mobile technology and work

It appears that mobile technology is lengthening the working day. Stories in the popular press abound about “CrackBerry” use, “work addiction,” and anecdotes of vacations not taken. While it is clear that there is an increased use of mobile technologies, there is very little scholarship that has examined its effects on the practice of work. Scholars have focused either on the culture of extreme overwork or mobile technologies. But there is little that connects overwork specifically with mobile technology use.

There is a deep need for such scholarship. Typical office technology is becoming essentially mobile technology. Where once immovable computers and landline phones were the norm, mobile versions of these technologies are becoming the default choice. Growth in laptop computer sales continues to outpace those of desktop computers. In 2005, 21.6% of all computers sold in the United States were portable, compared to 42.3% for desktops.

Research company IDC found that this share grew to 26.1% in 2006, and predict it will grow to 42.3% by 2009 (International Data Corporation, 2007b). Mobile phones are also increasing in numbers. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association reports that 47% of all telephone connections in Canada are now mobile connections (Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, 2007). Businesses are the primary consumers of email-capable devices such as BlackBerrys. According to the International Data Corporation, companies around the world will purchase 82 million smartphones, personal data assistants and BlackBerrys by 2011 (International Data Corporation, 2007a).

  • Long hours and technology work

Scholars of high technology workplaces have taken up this focus on extremely long working hours. But these studies typically assume that “work,” is spatially fixed to the physical office of the organization. For example, in their study of video-game workers, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2006) find that organizations have ample ability to avoid long hours of “crunch time” before a new game is shipped, but long hours are considered de rigeur in the industry. Workers spend upwards of 100 hours per week at work. It remains unknown how this work has been transformed (or not transformed) by the use of mobile technologies. It’s clear that the practice of work affects these workers’ home lives, as many of them leave the industry in order to have time with their families.

Garrett and Danziger find that there is a subset of occasional teleworkers they call “flexiworkers” (Garrett & Danziger, 2007). “Flexiworkers” work in the office, at home, and on the road. They make up about 5% of all teleworkers, and had the highest level of influence over their jobs (more than 75% say they are very influential). They are highly committed to their jobs and also experience a high degree of pressure to succeed. But they are time poor: 55% of flexiworkers report a low ability to keep up with their workload, higher than any other kind of teleworkers. This finding begs the question: under what conditions are flexiworkers able to restrict access during non-work hours? To what degree do flexiworkers demonstrate Zerubavel’s notion of professional availability?

The interactive agency workers in this study are active users of mobile technology, with most having been issued a laptop computer by their workplaces (raw data embargoed until peer-review publication).

Interestingly, these workers also had a large number of personal mobile technologies, many of which they often used for work (raw data embargoed). Of particular interest is the number of these workers that use their personal mobile phones for work.

  • Motivations for bringing work home

In this study, I interviewed and surveyed interactive agency workers. I found that workers had several motivations for bringing work home, including:

  • Need for quiet working space
  • Personal use / general web surfing
  • Impression management (demonstrating higher status conferred on mobile tech)
  • Part of the family

One the effects of the existence of mobile technologies, and the motivations to take them home, was the unintended entrance of one’s work into one’s private sphere. The ease with which mobile technologies come home renders the division between work and non-work far more porous than once before.

The presence of a laptop in shared family space lead to home/work conflicts. Respondents had a variety of ways of working around family members, but there were ambiguous boundaries of what constituted “work.” Some respondents noted their families accused them of “not being present” when the laptop was open, while others suggested it was the content of the laptop that mattered.

  • Ubiquitous Availability

Zerubavel argues that professionals’ work-time identities extend into their private lives more than non-professionals. He uses the example of nurses and doctors. Nurses who are “not on shift” can even sit at the nurses’ station and legitimately claim they have no responsibility to respond to work demands. Doctors, on the other hand, are publicly admonished (even by nurses) when they do not respond to work demands while at home. Beepers and telephone calls reinforce this norm.

This is also the case in interactive agency workers. The pervasive use of mobile technology casts a veil of ambiguity on the division between work and non-work for all workers. Mobile technologies allow for ubiquitous availability, particularly for senior workers who deal directly with clients. It also facilitates the availability of junior workers, despite the fact they rarely dealt directly with urgent requests from clients. The norms within the industry mirror those more of Zerubavel’s “professional” expectations of doctors’ availability, rather than nurses’. In the online survey, I found a significant number of interactive agency workers considered themselves “available” for work in off-hours. A large number (20) of these workers even considered themselves available for work during their vacations (raw data embargoed).

The practice of “checking in” becomes institutionalized. Respondents found that availability was disciplined through an expectation of immediate response. There is a subtle set of signals that junior workers learn as they move up the corporate ladder.

  • Paying to be available

The norm of ubiquitous availability is so strong that respondents routinely use their own personal technology to be available for work. In this sense, the burden of availability is borne only by the worker, and not the company. Often the need for availability is not formally recognized by company policy, as many of these workers do not receive company-issued mobile phones even though they use their own mobile phones regularly for work-related purposes. Workers effectively subsidize their companies’ operating expenses either by paying for mobile phone bills themselves, or face the burden of expensing it as work-related expense

  • Strategies for restricting access

Workers employed a variety of resistance strategies to firm up the divisions between work and non-work, but these strategies were highly individualized and informal. The struggle to act autonomously in private life was exceedingly difficult, given the pervasive use of mobile technologies.

Workers employed the following strategies:

  • Inconspicuous “blocking” or not answering chat/mobile phone requests
  • Using different online identities in private and working life
  • Striving to “turn off” technologies when around family

With no official policy limiting the use of mobile technologies, it was ambiguous as to what constituted true urgency and where fellow workers were to respect another worker’s private time.

  • Discussion and conclusion

This dynamic of ubiquitous availability is similar to that which Zerubavel describes for doctors. Doctors are expected to allow access during their private time. In exchange for this access, doctors are afforded various luxuries that nurses are not. They are not required to begin work at a fixed time, they have considerable autonomy in managing their workflow and employing professional discretion. Likewise, nurses’ exchange their relative lack of professional discretion for their right to restrict access in private time.

Like doctors, interactive agency workers regularly sacrifice their private time for work. The presence of mobile technology renders an end-of-shift ritual moot; work often goes home with these workers. Unlike doctors, however, interactive agency workers enjoy no formal recognition of this sacrifice of private time. These workers are expected to provide access in private time, but they do not receive in exchange the same kind of professional autonomy as doctors, nor are they paid overtime pay for being “on call.” The right to restrict access is not recognized as inalienable right in this industry. Indeed, this industry troubles the very notion of private time in that it contravenes Zerubavel’s contention that “one of the most common ways of denying a person that right is to buy it from him” (Zerubavel, 1990, p. 171).

Expectations of continuous availability are nothing new in the advertising industry. Writing in 1956, Mayer described the expectations of long hours:

Advertising men (sic), in fact, rarely get much time away from their jobs. They work in a windy atmosphere of shifting preferences where crisis is a normal state of affairs, and (as one advertising manager puts it) ‘someone is always hitting the panic button’ (Mayer, 1958, p. 10).

The workers in this study would likely be expected to put in the same hours even without the use of mobile technologies. Their widespread adoption has arguably “freed” these workers from long hours at the office, but has had the unintentional effect of blurring the line between private and work-time identities. The ability of workers to restrict access is therefore greatly compromised by the use of mobile technologies in the absence of official company policy of what warrants appropriate use.

This study also demonstrates that few of these technologies support workers’ strategies of resistance because restricting access is not embedded within the technologies themselves. Designers of mobile technology should consider the concept of restriction of access when designing new technologies. Unobtrusive measures such as “blocking” contacts without their knowledge are likely to be employed by workers who wish to anonymously resist demands for private-time access. Scholars of technology would do well to include the notion of restriction of access when studying technology’s impact, particularly when the context being studied involves clear potential for compromised autonomy.

But no design of technology will bring clarity to the issue of private versus work time. These workers employ various methods of restricting access that are, in the long run, unsuccessful because they individualized and not sanctioned by the organization. Only through specific organizational policies that codify restriction of access or organized and collective worker resistance that private time will be protected in the context of pervasive mobile technology use.

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