A double-edged sword

Wireless gives employees greater flexibility but can infringe on personal time
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/27/2007

The growing popularity of wireless networks is changing the way employees and businesses work. Connecting to the Internet has never been easier and getting away from it all has never been harder. But wireless has the ability to help employees improve work-life balance and productivity — if it’s used properly.

“This is a double-edged sword,” says John Yardley, the director of Brock University’s Wellness Institute, a workplace health research laboratory in St. Catharines, Ont. “It has both a value and a cost.”

The technology gives employees choices and the ability to do work at times when before it would have been impossible. If that means an employee can now go home early and take her son to a soccer game because she can check e-mail at half-time, then that gives the employee more time to spend with her family while also increasing productivity, says Yardley.

A 2003 in-house study of 100 employees at Santa Clara, Calif.-based computer chip manufacturer Intel, found wireless laptops saved each employee five per cent, or 2.5 hours, of a typical work week. Intel then calculated the value of this savings by multiplying the average employee cost burden ($100,000 a year) by five per cent, resulting in a net benefit per employee of $5,000 or 100 hours.

Time-slicing, using those previously unproductive times such as the 15 minutes between meetings, to check e-mail or attend to an urgent matter was one way employees increased productivity. Another way was through time-shifting, which lets employees choose the best time to do the work.

“Employees are able to redistribute work and time around personal and professional obligations,” says Khaled Hassanein, director of McMaster University’s eBusiness Research Centre in Hamilton. Not only were the Intel employees more productive, but they also reported an increased feeling of good work-life balance, he says.

Time-shifting is particularly important for multinational companies with employees and customers in different time zones, says Hassanein. If an employee has an important deal with a customer in a different time zone, he can shift his working time to meet his customer’s, even if that means working in the evening.

“It puts more control in our hands because now we have options about where we do work, but it means we also have to exercise that control,” says Rod Phillips, president and CEO of employee assistance provider WarrenSheppell. “For some people it means that they lose control because they don’t have the ability to turn off the work.”

That’s where the company has to step in and set clear policies and expectations around the technology — just because someone can check e-mail at 3 a.m. doesn’t mean she should.

The organization’s culture makes a difference between employees making the most of this new technology and being completely overwhelmed by it, says Phillips. It’s important to communicate with employees that they’re not driven by what’s possible, but instead by the business need.

“The leadership and the management of the organization have to set expectations and then manage within them. They do that explicitly by communicating it,” he says. The vice-president might still send e-mails on the weekend, but employees shouldn’t feel compelled to respond on the weekend unless that was explicitly asked for.

While having protocols is a good first step, it’s not enough. Management has to lead by example. It’s not enough to say an e-mail sent on the weekend doesn’t have to be responded to immediately if those who do respond immediately are rewarded, says Phillips.

Supplying employees with wireless laptops, giving them the flexibility to work from anywhere at anytime, combined with an explicit work-life strategy, can set an organization apart from the pack, says Hassanein.

“In today’s environment where there’s a lot of competition for skilled workers, the companies that can best manage this balance between work and life are going to get access to better employees and be able to keep them,” he says. “Companies have to distinguish themselves not only in terms of the compensation package and benefits that they offer, but also in terms of what work arrangements and lifestyles they facilitate for employees.”

Cities are also taking advantage of the new technology to help attract new businesses and talent by blanketing entire cities or certain areas with wireless internet access.

“It provides the infrastructure to allow these businesses to take full advantage of wireless technology and empower their mobile workers,” says Hassanein. “I think this will become a competitive advantage for cities.

Fredericton is one of the few cities to provide free wireless connectivity in the downtown core. The service, called the Fred-eZone, allows employees to connect to the Internet when they’re not at home or at work, making the most of those previously unproductive times.

Theoretically, a business in the zone could drop its paid Internet provider for the free service, but Don Fitzgerald, the executive director of the city’s economic development department, says that wasn’t the intent behind the service and he wouldn’t recommend it.

“The nature of (wireless) is that the quality of the connection could vary depending on where you are in the office. It’s primarily a technology that’s been designed for outdoor and public spaces,” he says. “It’s a very good service, but it’s not one I’d want to run my business on.”

Fitzgerald says 1,500 people use the service every day and often more than once a day.

“This is really infrastructure,” says Fitzgerald. “And we think it’s as important as recreational infrastructure and water and sewage infrastructure.”

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