The number of mobile internet devices is set to outnumber humans by the end of this year.[1] There’ll be more smartphones and internet-connected tablets and monitors than there are people on the planet. The prediction is especially amazing when you think that 3G is only just over a decade old.

The variety of devices that can access the internet is also set to grow. Sergey Brin of Google and other early adopters have been seen wearing the Google Glass – spectacles which allow wearers to use the internet. And it’s widely expected that Apple will launch a smartwatch. If we don’t even have to reach into our pockets for our phone in order to check emails or use the Internet, it’s going to be harder than ever to take ourselves offline.

Positive or negative?

We all know from our daily lives that tablets and smartphones have changed the way people work, but have they helped our work-life balance? In a survey in Hong Kong, respondents were shown positive and negative statements about the impact of technology on work-life balance. Whilst only 15.4 percent agreed with the positive statements, 42.7 percent agreed with the negative ones. The main complaint was that people felt they could never really switch off, even while asleep or on holiday.[2]

Technology has facilitated the 24/7 working culture, but other things have fed into it, too. Businesses are interacting with customers and colleagues in different time zones, and staff are increasingly expected to be available for late-night or early-morning calls. And the global downturn forced many workers to take on additional duties, which led to them working longer hours.

The positives of work-anywhere technology

Let’s not blame everything on technology. And let’s not forget the very positive changes that technology has brought to work-life balance over the past decade. Think how much easier it is to do your job when the cloud means you no longer have to go to the office to access corporate information or applications. Think how video-conferencing has reduced the need for time-consuming corporate travel.

Both those benefits are possible because technology allows people to work anywhere. It’s no coincidence that the launches of devices such as the BlackBerry in 2003, the iPhone in 2008 and the iPad in 2010 have been accompanied by a steep rise in the number of people using business centres and drop-in business lounges to work. There are now over 1 million customers in 100 countries using Regus flexible workplaces, because people are choosing to work at locations that suit them and their customers, instead of doing the old-fashioned fixed, daily commute.

In the latest edition of the Regus Work-Life Balance Index, 41 percent of respondents globally said their companies were doing more to help employees reduce commuting than two years earlier.[3] In Singapore, the percentage stood slightly lower at 39 percent. While in China and India it was well above 50 percent. Working remotely can save the average employee 79 hours of commuting each year.[4] It also cuts their travel costs and car emissions.

It’s probable that flexible working and measures to cut commuting are some of the reasons why 61 percent of people in the Regus Work-Life Balance Index said their work-life balance was better than two years ago.

The negatives of 24/7 management models

The negative aspects of 24/7 mobile technology arise not because of technology, but because of management cultures. In the Hong Kong survey above, almost a quarter of people said they use mobile devices and technology for work outside office hours because their bosses expect them to, and almost a fifth because their clients expect them to.[5] So it’s not their phones that are preventing them from relaxing, it’s other people.

As new mobile devices are launched, and increased mobile data speeds make it even easier to work anywhere, companies in APAC need to intensify the debate about work-life balance and people’s availability in a 24/7 world. Sure, people may need to do late-night conference calls, but they may be happier to do so if flexible working patterns let them cut their commuting time or juggle home and work commitments.

And office workers may need to think about their own habits too. One reason why colleagues and clients can so easily reach us out of hours nowadays is that we’re already on our tablet or phone – using social media or checking the football scores. We’re more likely to hear the ping of an email arriving, so we’re more likely to deal with it. The sender assumes we’re happy to work out-of-hours, and bombards us even more in future. It’s not just employers who need to learn the lessons about technology, presenteeism (either at the desk or at the end of the phone), and how we can work most productively, it’s also ourselves.

[1] “Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012-2017”, February 2013.
[2] “The State of Work-Life Balance in Hong Kong”, Community Business, 2012.
[3] ‘A Better Balance”, Regus, May 2012.
[4] “Productive and profitable: taking the teleworking pledge”, Cisco, 4 March 2013.
[5] “The State of Work-Life Balance in Hong Kong”, Community Business, 2012.

Image credits: Life Balance / Shutterstock