Balancing act: How connected is too connected when it comes to work?
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Like many of us who have smartphones, my wife is fairly attached to hers.
Sometimes, it appears she may be literally attached, in fact.
She uses it for almost everything, from keeping our family calendar and navigating with Google Maps to keeping a shopping list, tracking our children's activities and appointments, playing games and listening to music.
I know this about her, so I'm always a little surprised when I call her and she doesn't answer. I'm absolutely sure she has her phone, so why wouldn't she answer? Is she OK? Did she get in some kind of an accident?
My thoughts immediately go to worst-case scenarios. It's a curse.
Discounting those thoughts, I start wondering if she's screening my calls. Hmmm.
And then I realize that the most likely reason for her lack of answer is one of three things, none of which is scary or serious. First, it's possible that one of our children is playing on her phone and ignoring all calls, texts and other outside stimuli. Second, she may have turned the sound off on her phone while attending a meeting and didn't turn it back on, so she doesn't even know I'm calling. And third, she may have left her phone at home, which does happen at times.
All three of those are acceptable excuses for not answering, and frankly, I'm not usually calling due to an emergency.
However, the same isn't true when the roles are reversed. I also have my phone with me pretty much all the time. When my wife calls me, I try to answer right away or, if I'm in a meeting at work, send her a quick text just to make sure everything is OK. She rarely calls unless there is a problem or one of our children has done something cool, so I don't want to leave her hanging — or send her chasing worst-case scenarios of her own.
Such phone etiquette issues can be tricky, especially now that so many people have communication devices with them at all times and are never really disconnected from work, home, family or friends.
In late October, the company used Google's Consumer Survey tool to ask 1,504 U.S. workers the question: "How often would you answer your boss's phone call after business hours?"
The results were interesting. About 38 percent of respondents said they would always answer a call from the boss, while 17 percent said they sometimes would, 11 percent rarely would and 34 percent never would.
"With cell phones and mobile devices making it easier than ever to stay in contact, being available by phone has become an expectation rather than the exception," GetVoIP said in a prepared statement about the survey. "This expectation can make achieving work-life balance difficult for employees who may feel pressured to answer phone calls any time of the day or night."
I've written before about technology's tendency to keep us connected to the office, but I was focusing primarily on email. Phone calls are a different animal.
Because people seem to make voice calls much less often these days — opting instead for emails and text messages, or communication through social media — an actual call has grown in importance for me. If someone from work is making the effort to pick up the phone and call me, I assume it must be an emergency, or at least something important.
And if my boss is making that effort, I definitely answer right away, even if I'm at home in the evening or on a weekend. Again, I know enough about him to know that he wouldn't call unless he had an excellent reason.
The GetVoIP survey broke the results down by respondents' salary, and that was also enlightening. It showed that 54 percent of people who make $100,000 to $149,999 per year would always answer a call from the boss. For all lower-income categories, that number ranged from 32 percent ($75,000-$99,999) to 39 percent ($50,000-$74,999).
I think it's interesting that the second-highest-paid group was not as likely to answer the boss's call as those who are paid less. It seems like many middle managers would land in the higher category and would feel obligated to answer a call from the head honcho, but apparently that's not the case.
And at any rate, it may be better for the employee, the boss and the company if calls are avoided outside of regular work hours.
I hadn't considered the regulatory aspect of this, but the GetVoIP statement said that the U.S. Department of Labor has rules addressing whether workers should be compensated for answering calls and emails from home. However, the statement said, "businesses and employees alike are still learning to navigate the etiquette and legalities of after-hours communication.
"Having guidelines in the employee handbook that clarify what is expected can help ease stress for workers who aren’t sure how to handle after-hours phone calls from upper management."
I can see how such guidance would be helpful, but I wonder whether they would be followed. With communication as ubiquitous and easy as it is today, people seem to be getting more comfortable with the idea of always being just a call, text or tweet away from everyone they know.
I'm not saying that's necessarily a good thing, though it's not always a bad thing, either.
What do you think? How often would you answer a call from your boss outside of business hours? Why would or wouldn't you answer that call? And do you think it's a net positive or negative to be easily connected to work whether you're at the office or at home?
Leave a comment or send me an email explaining your thoughts on this, and I'll share some of your responses in a future column.