Recent Reseach on Blackberry un-Productivity

istock_000009385044xsmall.jpgI stumbled across some research that backed up what I have been seeing in companies recently.

The paper I found came from researchers at MIT:  Ubiquitous Email: Individual Experiences and Organizational Consequences of Blackberry Use by Melissa Mazmanian, Joanne Yates and Wanda Orlikwski.

It was gratifying to read, as it backed up quite a few things I have been  observing, and wondering why I felt alone!

They studied a small private equity firm and observed that:

“This (the ability to check email via a mobile device) encourages a compulsive checking of email and an inability to disengage from work that is common to all users but framed as a matter of individual choice.  Emerging norms reveal implicit expectations of availability and responsiveness that are in direct contrast to espoused firm values. Thus, members of an entire firm carrying a device that facilitates unobtrusive’ access to email may unwittingly generate shared patterns of use that encourage a self-reinforcing cycle of constant communication.”

In other words, while the members of the firm were steadily moving towards a cycle of 24-7 communication via their Blackberry’s, they were doing so while denying that there was a new expectation being created.   That’s a nice way of saying they were in denial.

The study goes on to show that people had begun to act unconsciously, and so had the organization, to the point where they were betraying their values, seemingly without knowing it.

They also seemed to think they were in control of their blackberry use, when in fact they were checking their devices within an hour of leaving work, every weekend and in every room of their homes.

All users report that carrying a BlackBerry offers the opportunity to monitor information flow while providing the opportunity to control the form of information delivery and receipt. However, in acting upon these opportunities individuals also experience a compulsion to check incoming messages that leads to difficulty in disengaging.

‘Difficulty in disengaging,” huh?  90% of those surveyed described a “compulsion to check” their Blackberry for new email.  They seemed unable to say where this compulsion was coming from, however, as they continued to insist that using their Blackberry was always their choice.  When they mentioned the stress that the device brought to their lives from being “always on,” they again failed to ascribe it to the firm.

The researchers concluded that when the device is introduced in a social network, new norms of communication arise that encourage imitation in how the device is used (i.e. everyone copies the boss) and eventually these norms become coercive.

Even when the employees don’t fully realize that this is what’s happening.

They do feel the effects however:

… users report an unrelenting desire for information and a drive to monitor incoming messages, which they explain as a need to reduce their anxiety of being disconnected. Ironically, such stress is amplified (and possibly created) because constant connection is possible.

Only when the researchers probed were some employees able to see a connection between the negative effects they were feeling and the increasingly coercive expectation they had failed to notice.

What’s important to note is that this particular company had quite an overt commitment to work/life balance, freedom and individual autonomy.  In other words, they appeared to be more “enlightened” than the average company and more willing to consider the humanity of its workers, according to its stated values.

When asked, one of the partners described the issue of a growing expectation as one that had its cause in the the fact that the world was getting “faster.”  He didn’t ascribe any of the responsibility to the company whatsover, and to its decision to give everyone a Blackberry back in 1999.

Loyalty?  Group-think? Denial?

(It seems clear from the research a new employee who refused to use a Blackbery would have a very short stay at the company, but that’s just my opinion.)

The survey for the study was completed back in 2004, and in the end the authors predict that the problem at the firm was only likely to worsen as the volume of messages increased and as smartphones became ubiquitous.  To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a followup study at the same company, but here in 2010 there are lots of corporations that are increasing the amount of smartphone-driven stress in employees’ lives, without anyone being fully aware of where it’s coming from or what can be done about it.