We all know the drill. The buzz of the phone on the bedside table. The Sunday conference call. The "I’ve-got-to-send-a-quick-email" holiday. Sure, it’s 7.30pm on Friday, but not in California, it’s not. Somewhere, someone is at the office, and they have something terribly important to tell you. Right now.
The traditional lines between work and life have been blurred. The idea of checking out and "powering down" is no longer viable for many of us. Constant connection to our clients, colleagues and work means office environments and working hours have become a fraction of what we call work.
This is not news – it’s seen as a cause of our diminishing home lives. We’re worse off for it. Worse parents, husbands and wives. Worse people.
There is another theory: this phenomenon has led to a new state – a third state – where we are always a bit at work, always a bit not at work.
The major factor, of course, is technology. Devices, applications and processes have transformed our access to one another, and the way we work.
The presumption in discussions about work-life balance is that this has been a one-way street; these devices and applications have simply bled work into life, diminishing the latter and letting the former grow dominant. I’m not sure that’s true.
The OECD has found that nations in which people work the fewest average hours (Turkey, Mexico, Korea, Chile) also have the poorest work-life balance. Working more hours doesn’t equal a poor work-life balance. The number of hours devoted to leisure ("socialising with friends/family, hobbies, games") has no correlation with the time devoted to work.
Something is happening to the way we work and socialise, allowing us to do these things simultaneously. Sure, there are times where we are only at work or at leisure, but so many of us often find ourselves in situations that cannot reasonably be described as 100% either. Imagining work intruding on home is very easy. What we ignore is the opposite. There are enormous benefits to work feeling less like work, to life intruding.
Working hours were not a critical consideration in The Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies to Work For rankings. Environment was. Physical space was. Even closeness of relationship with co-workers was. Anyone who has seen the BBC’s The Call Centre, which features the firm Save Britain Money – consistently rated as one of the country’s top five workplaces – can see the benefits of work made to feel like life.
Imagining work intruding on home is very easy. What we ignore is the opposite. There are enormous benefits to work feeling less like work, to life intruding.
And we can see that merger happening in technology more than anywhere else. No longer are leisure products restricted to that space, and no longer are work tools viable if confined to those occasions.
Tools and technologies designed for leisure (and dismissed as for kids) – instant messaging, multiplayer gaming, vanishing messaging, gesture control – are rapidly and effectively being appropriated into the workplace just as fast as tools designed for work are being disrupted or discontinued (now BlackBerrys, next linear email).
Whole corporations are lubricated internally by off-the-record, person-to-person group chats that more closely resemble teenager-friendly messenger products of old (remember MSN?) or new (WhatsApp) than email. Gaming dynamics have been applied to business problems such as group training and dynamic problem-solving. Accenture’s Gamification and Workplace Behavior Modification podcast is its most popular download.
The blurring of lines between leisure and work poses a challenge to marketers. Work and play are no longer clear-cut and this means targeting that third space. How can products or services make life support work and work resemble life?
The success of the iPhone over the BlackBerry will, in part, go down to its recognition of that third space. Products, services and businesses as diverse as Graze, Skype, Soho House, Barclays Cycle Hire and Nike+ FuelBand all play in that third space.
As technologies further blur the lines, products, services and businesses will need to specifically and effectively serve that space, and those that serve only one extreme or the other will find themselves pushed toward the margin.