The Autonomy Paradox: The Implications of Mobile Email Devices for Knowledge Professionals

This research was conducted through UCI & MIT by Melissa Mazmanian, Wanda J. Orlikowski and JoAnne Yates

(October 2013)

A note: The original qualitative research for this paper was conducted during 2004 and 2005. It is therefore reminiscent of knowledge workers use of mobile email devices (e.g. Blackberries) and mobile phones (rather than smartphones). Although some mobile phones had internet connection capability from 2001, the first iPhone was launched in 2007.

Key quotes from the research:

  • ‘Although individual use of mobile email devices offered professionals flexibility, peace of mind, and control over interactions in the short term, it also intensified collective expectations of their availability, escalating their engagement and thus reducing their ability to disconnect from work’
  • ‘Professionals were ending up using [mobile email devices] everywhere/all the time, thus diminishing their autonomy in practice’
  • ‘[The] autonomy paradox reflected professionals’ ongoing navigation of the tension between their interests in personal autonomy on the one hand and their professional commitment to colleagues and clients on the other’
  • ‘The ongoing use of mobile email devices enacted a collective dynamic of escalating engagement that was attenuating the very autonomy that professionals were extolling. Having the freedom to use the device anywhere, anytime, the professionals ended up using it everywhere, all the time’.

Summary of the research: 

Autonomy is defined (in this article) as: ‘the ability to exercise a degree of control over the content, timing, location, and performance of activities’. It is traditionally either endowed (through status or seniority) or bestowed (e.g. through experience or length of service) on those who have earned the privilege to decide when and how they get their work done.

In this qualitative research, a number of professionals within interdependent teams were interviewed on their use of mobile email devices (i.e. blackberries). Within these discussions, the researchers came to understand that although these professionals felt that they had been empowered, through the use of a mobile email device, to be more responsive and available to their managers, colleagues and clients as a way of demonstrating their competence, work ethic and desire to succeed in their job, they individually and collectively changed the workplace norms around availability and responsiveness within their work environment.

The workers not only justified their increased technology use by stating that the constant checking of their email device:

  • allowed them to stay up to speed with and manage the flow of information that passed by them
  • gave them the ability to ‘watch work’ and a sense of control over their workload
  • ensured that they did not become a work bottleneck when they were not in the office
  • helped to enhance their sense of professional status and competence

However, the constant checking of their devices had a number of unintended consequences:

  • it shifted the norms, expectations and assumptions of others (colleagues, clients and managers) in terms of accessibility, availability and responsiveness times
  • it increased the number of hours spent looking at and responding to emails, thereby directly reducing their amount of downtime
  • it blurred the lines (temporal boundaries) between work and private time
  • it increased the levels of stress experienced by these professionals

The professionals justified their voluntary increased use of the devices as a way to demonstrate their level of autonomy and their ability to act as responsible and competent professionals. They also stated it to be a consequence of their ‘Type A’ workaholic type personalities that are an integral part of succeeding within a professional environment.

The very behaviour used by these professionals to showcase their workplace dedication, escalated tacitly into a normative expectation by others of what it means to operate within that particular professional environment. The individual actions of each professional subtly changed the collective behaviour of all professionals, increasing ‘the pace and volume of communication in the network, raising expectations of responsiveness and accessibility and leading to a collective reduction of autonomy as workers began to engage with work at all times’. i.e. the normative expectations around quick response times to emails became the very thing that restricted the personal autonomy that these professionals were trying to live out and capitalise on in their daily working lives, and to showcase their level of commitment to their jobs.

If you are unable to access the web page, you can read a PDF of the article here.

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