Study will look at technology, communication in work, home lives

With 73.5 million iPhones sold in 2010 and Blackberrys considered as necessary as a stapler in many offices, smart phones are not only smart to have in the workplace, they're often expected.

But how do the devices impact the once-standing wall between family and work? Professors in business and informatics, a discipline that examines the interaction between people and technology, hope their new study can help them measure the effects.

UC Irvine Assistant Professor of Informatics Melissa Mazmanian, informatics doctoral student Ellie Harmon and Associate Business Professor Christine Beckman have

started the pilot phase of the study, where they plan to follow busy professional families and evaluate the importance of technological communication in their work life and home life and how they navigate between the two.

"Our goal is to look closely at how busy professionals integrate technology into their lives outside of work," Mazmanian said, "and how to deal with tensions and pressures on their off-time."

Right now, they are looking at two Orange County families. Once the study takes ground, they hope to expand to nine to 12 families, following each for a month.

Although they're in separate departments, Mazmanian and Beckman had a common interest in studying modes of communication.

Beckman had studied sailors in the Gulf from 2003 until the summer of 2010, looking at how they used digital communication to navigate the distance between them and their families. During her research she discovered how their personal lives frequently spilled into their work.

Mazmanian had conducted a similar study but instead of discovering the ramifications of personal communication, she was looking at organizational communication within a company, following the use of Blackberrys within two distinct groups — lawyers and salespeople.

Her work showed how two groups might view the device differently. While the lawyers were initially excited about the acquisition, they eventually learned to dislike the device because of the expectation they felt to be available at all times.

"The salespeople ended up loving it," she said. "It helped them do their job better because they needed written approval to do certain deals."

The professor says the difference comes down to their prospective measures of success. Whereas a lawyer is expected to meet a client's needs (which is subjective), a salesperson has clear goals and numbers.

When a salesperson hit their numbers, they didn't feel a social pressure to stay plugged in while off. This autonomy also lent them to being less concerned about their colleagues' connectivity as well.

Mazmanian and Beckman hope to combine their goals with this new study, not focusing solely on organizational communication or personal communication, but instead on how to navigate the two.

They're also asking the two families to pick a time to "tune out," which has surprisingly garnered a positive reaction.

"They're clearly people that are already thinking about these things but haven't quite noticed the difference between the wanting to be connected and their actual actions," Mazmanian said.

While many might feel guilt or fear of "missing something" when they tune out, Mazmanian said it is a group effort because there is another end which might expect an immediate response.

What do you do, she asks, when you get an e-mail while you're out with your family?

"I think it ends up being a positive way for people to reflect on their lives and their habits and whether those are aligned with the family life they want to have," Mazmanian said.

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