The rise of the "Bring Your Own Device" workplace — in which employees put company applications on personal gadgets — has further fueled the on-all-the-time work trend. The majority of U.S. companies have some form of a BYOD program, according to a report by Samsung Mobile and research group IDG.
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The expectation of off-hours availability isn't just on doctors and others who deal with emergencies. Now it affects teachers, administrative assistants, office managers, engineers and other professionals.
Tablets and smartphones can be liberating but also enslaving. And increased use brings the question: Has the 24/7 workplace gone too far?
"People are tired of always being plugged in," says Tanya Schevitz, a spokeswoman for the Jewish cultural think tank Reboot, which deemed March 1 a National Day of Unplugging. The group encouraged gadget users to turn off their devices for 24 hours to reclaim some personal time.
Schevitz estimates that about 10,000 people participated in some sort of digital detox either on their own or through group events such as a Device-Free Drinks gathering in San Francisco. At that party, hundreds of people checked their devices at the door and enjoyed low-tech entertainment such as board games and a portrait-sketching station.
"We have reached a tipping point where people are so overwhelmed and on edge from technology, and they are craving a respite," Schevitz says.
More Mobility, More Work
For millions, access to work simply means pulling an iPhone or Android out of a pocket — which explains why two-thirds of U.S. employees work even during their vacations, according to the consulting firm Accenture.
In an ideal world, there would be policies in place for the digitally connected worker, says Lisa Orndorff, manager of employee relations and engagement at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM.)
Such rules could have legal ramifications as well. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employees entitled to overtime pay must receive it when they work beyond a maximum number of hours, such as a 40-hour workweek. The constant technological tether to work is testing what constitutes the standard workweek, and lawsuits are challenging this new world.
Last month, a court allowed a lawsuit by Chicago police Sgt. Jeffrey Allen to proceed as a class action. He filed the suit in 2010 against the city for the time he says he spent connected to the job via his work-issued BlackBerry. Allen is seeking overtime pay for himself and other officers.
"They are hourly wage earners," says Allen's lawyer, Paul Geiger. "If you're going to make people work when they're not on duty, you've got to pay them."
Otherwise, he says, the city should have had a policy telling the officers to turn off the devices after their shifts or leave them in their lockers.
Roderick Drew, a spokesman for the city of Chicago's law department, says Allen could have requested overtime through existing policies.
It's not just those who qualify for overtime pay who need clear rules, Orndorff says. Employees across the board need to know what is expected of them in this connected world.
That often isn't the case.
Just one-fifth of employers had a formal policy that regulates use of wireless communication devices during non-work hours, according to a 2011 SHRM survey. One-quarter of organizations had an informal policy.
"There are no consistent workplace rules and expectations" in this area, says Pew's Rainie. That makes for "a tension-rife situation."
Blurring the Lines
Some people think productivity-enhancing technology has increased our leisure time, but the reality is quite different, says Rick Segal, worldwide president of global ad agency gyro.
"When everyone started carrying their own communication and telecommunications on their bodies, the boundaries between work and life collapsed," says Segal, who has done research on how digitally connected executives consume information.
Technological advances have caused work to spill into "more hours of the day and more days of the week — curiously, as a matter of people's own behavior and choices," he wrote in a 2012 report.
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There are myriad reasons why workers are compelled to constantly check their devices. Some deal with overseas markets. Others get pressure from the boss. Workers feel that if the company paid for, or subsidized, their digital device, they are obliged to use it. Then there's the worker afraid of upsetting a key client — or losing their job — if they don't keep up with the 24/7 pace.
"Some people say that 'If I don't do it now, I'll totally forget because I'll get 100 other e-mails — so it's easier to just knock it out now,' " says SHRM's Orndorff.
But being always connected can take a toll on sleep, exercise time and relationships.
Each worker must find healthy ways to deal with the digital overload, says sociologist and life coach Martha Beck: "It's your responsibility to shut off the flood of information — and you have the power to do it," she says. "It's not easy, but you have to set boundaries."
Though some people are frustrated by the rapid pace and long for simpler days, Beck prefers to look at the advances more optimistically.
"I like to see this as a move away from the factory to a move back to a state that is more natural to us," she says. "We're now free to create more natural work spaces."
This work-wherever-you-want, whenever-you-want world can increase worker job satisfaction as well as bolster the company bottom line, according to reports from the Telework Research Network, which conducts research on remote workers.
Workers who don't get drawn into in-office distractions can be more productive, the group says. Teleworkers can also save money on commuting costs and have more options in scheduling child and elder care.
No More 'Natural Breaks?'
For today's wired workers, it will take discipline to disconnect.
"We have the potential to have a screen in front of our face every hour of the day," says Andrew Lipsman, vice president for industry analysis at data tracker comScore.
Before the digital era, "we had natural breaks," he says. When a worker left home or office, the computer remained behind. Now, gadgets go along to church, the movie theater and dinner with the in-laws — places where we begin to tune out others.
Rachel Macy Stafford writes a blog called Hands Free Mama, which looks at how to use technology in a mindful way. In one post, she recounts how several children responded when she brought up the topic of turning off devices and interacting with loved ones.
Among the verbatim responses: "My dad has a problem putting down his phone." "My mom texts and drives." "Sometimes I say something and my dad doesn't hear me because he is typing on his phone."
Stafford said she didn't want to judge the behaviors of others but noted that "the children's remarks indicate there is a disturbing problem in our society."
Contributing: Sabrina Treitz