THE BLOG
11/01/2012 05:32 pm ET Updated Jan 01, 2013

In a Mobile-Enabled 24/7 World, When Can Employees Turn Off?

Much has been written in recent years about the increasing frequency with which people today blend personal and private. This argument is often made in the context of social media: it is said that the Millennial generation are "digital natives" who have been raised on MySpace and Facebook and think nothing of "friending" family and friends and work colleagues all together in the same social media platform.

The other side of the blending personal and private discussion is often in the context of mobile devices that can ostensibly keep people connected to work 24/7. The conversation quickly moves to the concept of work-life balance; 'How can someone have any life when they are continually connected to work?' Indeed, research commissioned by WorldatWork from Gayle Porter of Rutgers University revealed that mobile device users self-reported more working hours after obtaining mobile devices than before obtaining them. But that's not really surprising, is it?

Now comes a report that Europe's biggest automaker, Volkswagen, decided late last year to limit when employees can receive emails on their mobile devices. According to a source that I found, Volkswagen employees will only be able to receive messages a half an hour before normal work hours until half an hour after normal work hours. During the time in between, the employer will block messages from being sent with the given reason that they are trying to combat employee burnout.

Have we finally arrived at the point with our devices and 24/7 connectivity that employers have to install boundaries for us -- because we just can't help our compulsions? Actually, maybe so: a study released by the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business in early 2012 indicated that people find it harder to resist email, Facebook and Twitter than cigarettes and alcohol. Unbelievable, but true.

I think the thing to realize about this situation is that technology is not going to suddenly go in reverse and take us back to a different time when there was a fairly defined end of the work day. Smartphones are not going to disappear -- in fact, we can be confident that they will get even smarter. The lines separating work and family will continue to fade -- both due to technology and generational attitudes. Personal and private will continue to integrate. And we, as workers and employers, need to find ways to allow these two worlds to peacefully co-exist, and co-exist in a way that enables the productivity and business results sought by employers, and the employment rewards and low stress sought by employees.