Is Technology Making Our Lives Better, or Just Enabling Us to Work More?

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Image by ishane

According to Forbes, it is the latter, hands down:

The Highest-Paying Jobs of the Future Will Eat Your Life.

For a glimpse of the future of work, especially the high-paying kind, look at finance and high-tech companies. Some of the biggest offer high employee salaries combined with lavish perks like free meals at work, luxury shuttle buses for commuters, and extras such as dry cleaning picked up and dropped off at people’s desks. This might look like the fruits of corporate beneficence. In fact, alongside email and other digital technologies, perks like these aim to maximize efficiency and working time, enabling employees to work as many hours as possible without needing to take time off to travel outside for food or errands.

This isn’t new. When I first went to work at a law firm, I was somewhat surprised by the amount of things that were available for free in the office. There was plenty of free food options, a workout facility, showers, and for attorneys traveling the couple of hours between our office locations, there was a car service that would take you. It didn’t take long before I realized why a law firm would offer those things. Time = Money. The more time that has to be taken to leave the office, or drive between offices, the less time you had available to bill.

The rest of the business world is catching up with that idea. If we offer wifi on a shuttle that takes you to work, traffic is no longer a productivity issue. That’s great when many employees live in a similar area, but just wait until we have self-driving cars!  Another place where you can work! Companies jumped on the opportunity to use laptops and smartphones for the same reason. Suddenly, they could get more work out of people because they could work without being in the office, and they could be reachable regardless of where they are thanks to technology!

Again, it’s not new, but it just keeps getting more and more invasive. I can recall in the early 2000’s sitting at a service station outside of Denver, where I was on vacation in the mountains, on the phone with first my boss, and then our technology vendor to arrange the shipment of a replacement part to meet me back in the office upon my return. That has since morphed into looking at email on my phone at 11PM, (And really, I work for a multinational company, someone is almost always sending email!) and even the very last place where we used to be able to disconnect, on an airplane, I now find myself using the wifi to answer emails and keep up to date.

I’m a technology geek, and a social media geek. I love being able to see what my friends and family are up to any time I have a few spare minutes, and I love being able to get information from my phone anytime, anywhere. On the other hand, I know that connection goes two ways. If I’m connected, my workplace can reach me, and probably will. If something needs to be done, I don’t really have much of an excuse to not respond, and the higher I am in the organization, and the more I get paid, the more that expectation grows. If we go back to the Forbes article, we can see that companies have a vested interest in hiring fewer people at higher salaries because of the added expenses that come with more people. Naturally, if I can get one person to give me 80 hours of productivity, it’ll cost me much less than two people giving me 40 hours of productivity each. Win-win, right? The one employee gets paid much more than they would if there were two, but not so much that it offsets the cost of two employees.

But, not so fast. There’s a price to pay for all of those work hours:

1. Personal life? Yeah, not so much….

2. Is the work actually better? I don’t know about you, but if one of my East Coast coworkers calls me at 8AM their time, they will not be getting a very responsive version of me. They will be waking me up, and probably not getting a very cognizant response. But hey, it’s a response and I’m giving them work!

3. Blurred Lines – No, not the song. As technology has become mobile, and constant, the line between what is work and what is personal has blurred, in both directions. Once upon a time, workers would have never dreamed of spending 20 minutes talking to their spouse, or looking at Facebook during “work hours”. Now? You’d be an idiot to think that those same people who you expect to work during their commute, and at night, and on weekends, aren’t using some of their time in the office on personal tasks.

What will the future hold? I think, for some, the scenario laid out in the article will be the truth. There will be some high-earners who basically are their job. They are never really not working. Today we might think of those people like the tech startup founders. Always connected, always responsive; even when they are out in public, they are working the room on behalf of their company. For most of us, it’ll fall somewhere in between. There has absolutely been a push into what used to be personal time and space by work, thanks to the increase in technology, but the reverse has also been true. For example, I give up a lot of my personal time when traveling. Flying to Australia, as I will be doing shortly, cannot fit into an 8-5 work schedule. In fact, it will consume an entire weekend, or what used to be considered personal time. On the other hand, will I do some sightseeing and other, personal, activities during the time I am there and not in classes or meetings? Absolutely. Does traveling like that limit the amount of time I have to do the things we all need to do, like run errands or clean the house? Again, yes it does. But my wife and I find ways to work around both of our demanding jobs, even if it means paying to have someone else do some of these things for us so that we leave ourselves some actual down time.

So yeah, technology is constantly changing our relationship with work, but people adapt. What is a fairly normal lifestyle now would seem ridiculous by 1950’s perception, and what will be the “norm” for how we work, and how we use our personal time 20-30 years from now may seem ridiculous to us right now, but by then? Who knows how we will work with technology?

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