By Elizabeth Harrin (London)
What does your boss think about giving you gadgets for work? And what do you think about carrying around a smart phone or BlackBerry? While it might feel like technology means you are chained to the office – even when you aren’t actually there – new research shows that gadgets actually have a positive impact on happiness and work/life balance.
A new study from BCS, the UK’s Chartered Institute for IT, shows that access to information technology has a ‘statistically significant, positive impact on life satisfaction’. The report is based on an analysis of the World Values Survey, and contains responses from over 35,000 people around the world. The research, carried out by Trajectory Partnership, suggests that there is a personal and social benefit which results from access to technology, a result they call the ‘information dividend’ and you probably benefit from it.
“Put simply, people with IT access are more satisfied with life even when taking account of income,” says Michael Willmott, the social scientist who authored the report and co-founder of The Future Foundation. “Our analysis suggests that IT has an enabling and empowering role in people’s lives by increasing their sense of freedom and control, which has a positive impact on wellbeing or happiness.”
It’s not a big leap to think that having a sense of freedom (by not being shackled to the desk) and being in control of your life (by being able to deal with work when you want to) contribute so positively to overall wellbeing.
“Access to and usage of IT helps to promote and enable empowerment and autonomy which then increases well-being,” the report says. It goes on to say that the impact of access to technology has a bigger effect on a sense of freedom than on general satisfaction.
Being able to control what you do and how you do it does make for a better work/life balance, but how you use those gadgets to manage your work and home lives is just as important, according to Dan Markovitz, president of TimeBack Management. “Access to technology — which really means always-on, portable connectivity to the office — can be a wonderful tool for improving work/life balance,” says Markovitz. “Just as pagers – remember them? – unshackled doctors from the telephone and enabled them to leave the house when they’re on call, a smart phone enables knowledge workers to leave the office to attend a child’s dance performance. That’s a good thing. But technology is a two-edged sword, and the very tool that improves work/life balance can destroy it.”
The researchers have been measured in their analysis, and certainly don’t claim that giving everyone a smart phone is the way to everlasting bliss. “Information technology and information may make us happier on balance, as this study suggests, but we do not pretend that they are inherently beneficial,” says Elizabeth Sparrow, President of BCS. “Academics, policy makers and social scientists want to identify what makes people ‘happy’ and apply those insights to social and economic policy. The relationship between information, IT and happiness has not traditionally been well investigated. Tracing these connections is difficult for lots of reasons, as this study shows. If we can enhance the understanding of the relationships in a way that leads to new and improved thinking, strategies or solutions then we will have helped a little.”
One of the challenges with identifying what makes people happy is that it is hard to define happiness in the first place. For many office-bound women it will certainly include a sense that they are able to balance their work and personal lives, and technology can be a big contributor to that, if it is managed properly.
“Don’t spend your days, nights, and weekends tethered to your inbox or you’ll lose sight of what’s really important,” recommends Markovitz. “Your calendar is the essential tool for protecting that resource, and ensuring that it’s allocated to the most important tasks — whether that’s preparing a sales proposal, spending time with your family, or walling off a few precious moments for your own mental health. Remember: there’s an infinite amount of email, but not an infinite amount of time.”
It wouldn’t be hard for a high-performing woman to let her smart phone suddenly start ruling her personal life, instead of the other way round. So make sure that if you do work more flexibly (and happily) thanks to gadgets, that you set yourself some boundaries. “Yes, access to your work files and your email is a great aid when you’re out of the office and you need to refer to something,” says Markovitz. “But just because you can do your work from home at 11pm, doesn’t mean you should. Be mindful of when and why you’re logging in. Have a clear purpose, get in, and get out.”
A few simple guidelines around not letting gadgets rule your life could be the difference between a positive experience of technology and a negative one.
“The Institute’s view is that the social and personal benefits of information and IT outweigh the negatives for the majority,” says Sparrow. “The ‘Information Society’, as we see it, should be a place where IT is used to improve life satisfaction and support our individual and collective goals.”