by Tom Kaneshige

Mobile guilt trips lead to distracted workers. Time to unplug?

Apr 21, 20155 mins
Consumer ElectronicsMobileSmall and Medium Business

Does your smartphone or tablet make you feel like you're stealing time from your family when you're working at home and robbing your employer when you sneak in personal business at work? You're not alone, according to recent research. Here's more on mobile guilt and what one CIO is doing about it.

mobile guilt
Credit: Thinkstock

James Gordon plans to hike a hundred miles in the backcountry with a few friends. They’ll be relying on an old-fashioned compass and their wits to survive. If someone breaks a leg or a wild animal causes injury, they’ll have to carry the victim out or send a party to find help, because nobody will be packing a satellite phone.

You’d think Gordon, CIO at Needham Bank, would lean on his tech chops and the banking industry’s risk-adverse stance to make safer choices. But Gordon says mobile technology would ruin the experience; he doesn’t want to be distracted. After all, mobile connectivity might pressure Gordon to do a little work while on the trail.

“I’d feel guilty about it,” Gordon says.

Mobile leads to guilt complex

Gordon is far from alone in his feelings of guilt when doing work tasks during personal hours or personal tasks during work hours. In a MobileIron-Harris Poll survey of 3,500 professionals who use a mobile device for work, a large group was found to be engaged in “shadow tasking” just like Gordon. A whopping 58 percent of these workers say they feel guilty about mixing their work and personal lives.

At the heart of all this guilt is the notion of stealing. Working at home or on vacation feels like you’re stealing time away from family and friends. Conducting personal affairs during work hours means you’re not working hard and thus stealing from your employer.

The guilt is only going to get worse as mobility and the blended work-life culture continues to infringe on people’s lives. By 2019, Forrester foresees 3.5 billion smartphone users in a world with 7.5 billion people. The MobileIron-Harris Poll survey found that 42 percent of the mobile generation own or plan to purchase a wearable device, and nearly all plan to use those devices for work tasks.

“People’s wrists are going to be vibrating,” Gordon says.

[Related: Is the work-life balance a myth?]

And so will people’s guilty feelings and worker stress levels. Gordon’s warnings about the blended work-life culture echo those of Arianna Huffington. She told attendees at Marketo’s Marketing Nation Summit in San Francisco last week about the time she was working enormous hours to build up Huffington Post, fainted from exhaustion and hit her head. Huffington recovered with an epiphany: “We have to move away from the collective delusion that burnout is success,” she says.

It’s time to take time-off seriously

Today, Huffington Post employees can take a midday siesta in a napping room and, more importantly, are not expected to be on email after work or on vacation. Senders of email to employees on vacation, for instance, will be told that their email has been deleted and to resend the email at a later date. This way, employees returning from vacation won’t run into an avalanche of email. If a matter is urgent, employees will receive a text message sent by Huffington Post. Other than these rare instances, they are off the clock.

“If you can’t go on vacation without being pestered, then it’s not really a vacation,” Gordon says.

[Related: Smartphone addiction: why are we afraid to be alone?]

Ridding guilt isn’t easy when employees bring it upon themselves. According to the MobileIron-Harris Poll study, three out of five young professionals would leave their job if their employer did not allow any remote work or restricted their capability to do personal tasks at work, despite the guilt this brings.

Ultimately, guilty feelings come with a heavy price tag. Gordon says he sees it every day, in the form of distracted drivers texting on their mobile devices while swerving on the road. With the blended work-life culture, he says, people are entering a world of distracted working and distracted living and doing neither well.

“Try giving attention to your spouse while typing up a presentation,” Gordon says. “Which master are you upsetting?”

How CIOs can help

Gordon says it’s the CIO’s job to help maintain work-life balance for employees. It’s somewhat ironic, because the CIO was probably one of the primary enablers of work-life imbalance by building an always-on system that pushes the boundaries of mobile worker productivity.

On the managerial side, a CIO can make the case that the blended work-life culture leads to higher quantity but lower quality of work. On the technical side, a CIO can adopt email features such as the solution in place at Huffington Post or create a true “do not disturb” state for mobile devices.  

It’s important to address this problem before feelings of guilt and stress get out of hand, Gordon says. This imbalance will lead people to look for ways to unplug, just like Gordon’s planned backpacking trip. He wants to disconnect completely, rid himself of both work and personal distractions, and focus on the task at hand.

In this case, it means taking a walk in the woods.