Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Birth of a generation of workaholics

Kanika Datta | November 09, 2005

I recently read, with growing consternation, an article on mobile devices. The author of the article, impressively geeky to the gills, talked excitedly of the new range of mobile solutions that are now available to executives to ensure them constant connectivity with the office.

These marvellous devices and software solutions, the writer said, not only allow executives greater flexibility in organising their work-life balance, they also afford corporations 24 x 7 access to their employees.

What with company-sponsored laptops, PDAs, Blackberrys and mobile phones, executives are pretty much there already. In this week of near-continuous holidays, though, I wonder about the impact of all of this.

The great point about such constant connectivity is that executives -- women executives in particular -- certainly do get to organise their work-life balance better.

Got one of those dratted PTA meetings to attend? Well, it's now possible to make up for lost time by working either early in the morning or late at night, thanks to advanced mobile technology solutions. You child ill with the 'flu? Today, technology makes it entirely possible to perform the miracle of both nursing her and putting in a full day's work as well.

It must be admitted that technology has been a great enabler, helping corporations derive creative solutions to extract greater productivity from their employees, both blue and white collar.

The productivity gains from the blue-collar category of workers are now well documented and visible in the radically improved margins across the manufacturing spectrum in India (though the country still has some way to go on this front).

But rarely is the growing productivity of the white-collar worker highlighted; executive productivity is acknowledged more tacitly than explicitly and is taken as a given.

Today, there is no doubt that he (and increasingly she) probably packs in three times as much in a day as his or her counterpart did 20 years ago. Think of just one activity that has now become the currency of daily corporate life: the presentation.

In the old days, putting together a presentation used to be a laborious process that involved writing on plastic "slides" that had to be fitted on to a projector. Today, thanks to PowerPoint, it takes less than half that time to put together a presentation. Thanks also to the Internet, it's now possible to shoot off multiple proposals to multiple customers in the course of the day - and get replies as well.

Technology has truly played a central role in enabling the global corporation. Executives in Asia can now work in real-time with execs in Europe or the US to discuss proposals, solve crises, even make client pitches.

All of this has become so ingrained in daily corporate life that executives probably wonder why it is worth recalling at all. It is, simply because it is increasingly raising the suspicion that the carrot of tech-enabled flexi-time has a serious, if intangible, downside.

Even as it enables executives to fit their family lives into a busy schedule, it is breeding a culture in which you are never quite free from the pressures of your office. There is no real "off" time anymore - especially so since companies pay for the mobile devices that keep you connected.

Is all of this breeding a generation of workaholics? Is the trade-off really squaring off in favour of the "life" aspect of the work-life equation? Does it make, for example, for Dad to be at home this evening if he's answering emails and talking on the mobile all the time? Like Wall Street brokers, is life becoming one long, permanent neurotic chase to meet deadlines and targets?

That may be a premature prediction, but one thing is certain: working round the clock -- or claiming to, at least -- is becoming something of a badge of honour. Increasingly -- and it was well in evidence this holiday week -- a good part of social conversation revolves around just how much everybody works weekends and 9 to 9 as a matter of course. Working a regular eight-hour day is passé, even seriously retro.

Occasionally you get guys like Julian Mantle, the protagonist of Robin S Sharma's didactic book The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari, who finally opt out of the whirligig. Not everyone has the luxury of Mantle's somewhat hackneyed search for his soul, though many work off their burn-outs in truly useful social work.

Either way, it's an unhealthy trend to which HR experts could usefully address themselves. After all, isn't work all about enjoying your leisure?



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