Corporate smart phones: professionals’
conscious engagement in escalating
Flávia Cavazotte, Ana Heloisa Lemos and
This article explores how the adoption of company sponsored
smart phones inﬂicts upon the lives of professionals. Drawing
upon qualitative interviews at a law ﬁrm in Brazil, the experi-
ences of new smart phone users are reported upon in detail.
Increased accessibility, accuracy and speed in exchanges gave
the users a sense of autonomy and ﬂexibility. However, the
technology also helped to intensify the organisation’s hold on
employees outside of regular working hours, reaching into new
settings, time slots and social contexts. Employees expressed
concerns regarding demands from superiors that negatively
affected their private spheres, yet many of them paradoxically
requested more efﬁcient smart phone connectivity. The article
focuses on the justiﬁcations, the different narrative strategies,
employed by professionals for their conscious engagement in
escalating work connectivity. It is suggested that these justiﬁ-
cations display users’ attempt to ‘dis-identify’ with the role
and practice they perform.
Flávia Cavazotte is Associate Professor of Management and Research Director at the School of
Business of Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). She received her PhD degree
in Business Administration from Virginia Commonwealth University. She presently serves the editorial
board of the Brazilian Administration Review (BAR), and the Division of Human Resources and Work
Relations of the Brazilian Academy of Management (ANPAD). Cavazotte has published articles in
periodicals such as The Leadership Quarterly (LQ), Organizational Research Methods (ORM) and Cross-
Cultural Research (CCR). Her current research interests include organizational leadership, identiﬁcation
and citizenship behaviors; diversity and cooperation; and social issues of IT development and use. Ana
Heloisa Lemos is Associate Professor of Management and Research Director at the School of Business
of Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). She received her PhD degree in
Sociology from Instituto Universitário de Pesquisas do Rio de Janeiro (The University Research Insti-
tute of Rio de Janeiro). Lemos is currently a member of the Scientiﬁc Committee of the Division of
Human Resources and Work Relations of the Brazilian Academy of Management (ANPAD). She has
published articles in a range of Brazilian journals, including Brazilian Business Review,Organizações &
Sociedade, and Revista de Administração Contemporânea. Her current research interests include career, the
meaning of work, labor relations and social issues associated with IT development and usage. Kaspar
Villadsen is Associate Professor and Director of the PhD Program at Department of Management,
Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School. He holds a PhD in Sociology from the University
of Copenhagen. Villadsen’s current research centers on the concept of the state and ‘state phobia’ in
Michel Foucault and his successors’ work. He has a forthcoming book on this subject (with Mitchell
Dean) on Stanford University Press. Villadsen has published extensively drawing upon concepts from
Foucault and post-structural theory for the study of social policy, health, welfare provision and critical
issues in the world of contemporary management. His work has been published in journals such as
Constellations,Culture and Organization,Public Management Review, and Social Theory and Health.
New Technology, Work and Employment 29:1
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd72 New Technology, Work and Employment
Keywords: smart phones, work/life balance, work intensiﬁca-
tion, dis-identiﬁcation, Zizek, control, Brazil.
This article focuses on the use of smart phones provided to professionals by their
employer. It thus contributes to an emerging, although still relatively limited, research
domain on employees’ use of company sponsored mobile communication technology
(Gant and Kiesler, 2001; Middleton, 2007; Mazmanian et al., 2013; Reis de Araujo and
Villadsen, 2013). Although such technologies are advertised with the promise of less
time spent at work, their adoption often results in a considerable increase in working
hours (Gant and Kiesler, 2001; Hislop and Axtell, 2011). Our goal is to better under-
stand how the use of corporate smart phones is affecting professionals as they perform
their work, paying particular attention to critical issues of work intensiﬁcation, and
new forms of surveillance through networks of communication and data exchange. We
also examine how employees reﬂect upon their own behaviours and justify how they
use mobile devices.
This study attests to the highly ambiguous role played by communication technology
at workplaces. Smart phones are generally viewed by users as tools for achieving
greater personal freedom and space for manoeuvre. Their reported beneﬁts include
enhanced possibilities of connectivity, rapid access to information, and effective data
storage and transfer (Davis, 2002; Jarvenpaa, 2005). So far, research on the subject
documents (perhaps surprisingly) little resistance from employees against the intro-
duction of new communication technologies at workplaces. The tendency is rather
that employees embrace the technologies or take an ambivalent stance on them
(Mazmanian et al., 2013), but research that explore employees’ responses in detail is
scarce (Middleton, 2007; Hislop and Axtell, 2011). In this article, we foreground the
self-justiﬁcations given by professionals who voluntarily take part in a process of
escalating work-related connectivity. By self-justiﬁcation, we mean the reasons, justi-
ﬁcations and critical reﬂections employees express in relation to their use of commu-
nication technology for work purposes. In the next section, we discuss recent research
on the ambiguous aspects of this new technology and further elaborate and specify our
Computational mobility and work intensiﬁcation
A key critical claim in the emerging literature on employees’ technology use is that the
novel communication technology facilitates a process of work intensiﬁcation by allow-
ing work communication and task solving to take place during times usually devoted
to private activities (Burke and Fiskenbaun, 2009; Hislop and Axtell, 2011). It has been
observed that the use of portable communication tools means that workers are always
‘on-call’ in relation to their superiors and colleagues who expect fast response and
problem solving, even during employees’ time off. These effects are held to be most
pronounced among knowledge workers and ‘symbolic analysts’ (Reich, 1994). These
professionals perform knowledge intensive work, enjoy a relative degree of autonomy
and have ﬂexible working arrangements. This study focuses precisely on these profes-
sionals, and for this reason, we restrict our discussion to a few recent studies of such
professionals’ use of communication technology, namely, the work by Middleton (2007)
and Mazmanian et al. (2006; 2013).
A key ﬁnding in these studies is that professionals whose activities require continual
coordination among colleagues, clients and associates take a predominantly positive
attitude to new communication technologies. They largely embrace the devices while
they nevertheless acknowledge that this embrace is accompanied by escalating com-
munication patterns and work activity encroaching upon the private sphere. The reason
why the users conceive the beneﬁts of adopting the technologies to outweigh the
negative effects revolves around perceptions of increased autonomy, control and the
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Professionals in escalating work connectivity 73
capacity to act as a competent professional. Hence, a study by Hislop and Axtell (2011)
observed that service engineers with a high degree of independence did not feel that
their cell phone use resulted in reduced autonomy or a blurring of work/life bounda-
ries. Middleton (2007) similarly found that BlackBerry users viewed their devices as
empowering, allowing them more control over their environments. In the work by
Mazmanian et al. (2006; 2013), the participants recognised that they voluntarily inten-
siﬁed work-related electronic communication, yet they felt that the mobile devices
greatly helped them to monitor and manage email communication: ‘Rather than feeling
frustrated or trapped, they report that using the mobile email device offers them
greater ﬂexibility and capacity to perform their work, and it increases their sense of
competence and being in control’ (Mazmanian et al., 2013: 1).Across these studies, then,
a contradiction is detected between, on the one hand, the users’ appreciation of the
technical capacities of the mobile devices in terms of size, speed, reliability and unob-
trusiveness, allowing them to perform as more competent professionals, and, on the
other, their concerns about creasing communication levels and the accompanying work
Unwitting work intensiﬁcation
The tension detected between users’ experiences of greater connectivity and the
accumulated effects hereof in terms of higher expectations of accessibility is often
described as a fundamental ‘contradiction’ or ‘tension’—a theme prevalent in studies
of demanding working conditions and organisational change (Tracy, 2004). The
theme of organisational contradictions resonate in the studies of professionals’ usage
of communication technology, where terms such as ‘dualities’, ‘contradictions’,
‘ambivalences’, ‘paradoxes’ or ‘conﬂicting demands’ are abundant. Some researchers
emphasise the built-in, unavoidable ambiguity of communication technologies which
are said to simultaneously ‘empower and enslave users’ (Middleton, 2007: 167).
Under the headline, ‘the autonomy paradox’, Mazmanian et al. (2013) suggested that
professionals’ reliance on mobile email devices simultaneously enhances and restricts
their autonomy. This ambiguous process stems from the fact that the professionals
predominantly evaluated their increased technology use and engagement in work-
related communications as a matter of free choice. At the same time, however, the
intensiﬁed communication practice at the individual level was accompanied by higher
expectations of accessibility on the collective level, since ‘a norm of continuous acces-
sibility emerged’ (Mazmanian et al., 2013: 14). The ‘autonomy paradox’ was thus pro-
duced as professionals felt their autonomy and control enhanced by engaging in
intense mobile communication. Yet, the accumulated ramiﬁcations in the organisation
were escalating expectations of accessibility and promptness which encroached upon
the professionals’ autonomy (Mazmanian et al., 2013: 12). It is indeed this paradoxical
relationship between autonomy and commitment generated by intensiﬁed mobile
communication that we seek a deeper understanding of.
Mazmanian, Orlikowski and Yates contrasted their ﬁndings to prior studies of work-
place control (e.g. Barley and Kunda, 2004) in as far as the professionals voluntarily
engaged in collective escalation of communication that would limit their autonomy
over time. The authors explain this paradoxical practice by referring to professionals’
lack of recognition of how the spiral of intensiﬁed communication and increasing
expectations gradually encroached upon their autonomy: ‘(T)he professionals unwit-
tingly intensify their commitment to team members, colleagues, and clients and reduce
their ability to disconnect from work’ (Mazmanian et al., 2013: 2). Noteworthy is that
the participants emphasised their increased technology use as a personal choice and
that none of them referred to external pressures such as company culture, performance
measurement or team norms for escalating their engagement: ‘Indeed, many had
trouble initially explaining why they felt compelled to engage with the device as often
as they did.’ (Mazmanian et al., 2013: 11). According to the authors, then, their respond-
ents displayed a limited reﬂexivity in regards to accounting for why they voluntarily
engage in escalating connectivity and routines akin to compulsive usage. Neither were
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd74 New Technology, Work and Employment
respondents apparently fully capable of apprehending the accumulated effects of their
individual practices. Almost as if the respondents were diluted by an ideology of
individual performance, they apparently contributed to a culture of perpetual connec-
tivity which actually restricted their autonomy, believing this practice would enhance
their freedom and capacity to perform as professionals. Notable, then, the researchers
clearly take a much more cautious and critical stance on the adoption of novel company
sponsored communication technology than the interviewed users.
A similar normative discrepancy can be found in other recent contributions to the
subject. In Middleton’s study, the BlackBerry was assumed to have ‘addictive qualities’,
and yet the users put more emphasis on the positive qualities of the device using terms
such as ‘liberating, freeing, tremendously useful and beneﬁcial’ (Middleton, 2007:
169). Middleton’s article has the telling title ‘Illusions of Balance and Control in an
Always-on Environment’, which indicates her main conclusion: users could sustain
expanding and work-intensifying practices of BlackBerry usage by means of an illusion
of being in control and balance. Although Middleton did not seek to explicitly contest
the views expressed by the participants in her study, she concludes that their percep-
tions were shaped by an organisational work culture which was ‘out of balance’: ‘(I)t is
suggested that their perceptions of acceptable engagement levels with their mobile
devices are inﬂuenced by organizational cultures that reinforce overwork and promote
unrealistic expectations for employee engagement in their jobs’ (Middleton, 2007: 175).
Again, it is the researcher who asserts that the employees are engulfed by a work
culture of overwork and invasion of the private. The latter, on behalf of whom the
researcher speaks, nevertheless largely express appreciation of their portable devices.
We wish to take a slightly different approach. Instead of attempting to unveil a reality
that the agents are supposedly (partly) ignorant to, we wish to follow the assumption
that highly skilled technology users are fundamentally reﬂexive about the practices and
processes that they engage in. We do not seek, then, to recover some organisational
culture which unwittingly shapes its members, but rather to explore professionals’ own
reﬂexive considerations. This implies observing their interpretations, objectives, justi-
ﬁcations and ambivalences without too hastily reducing these to some other explana-
Strategies for handling perpetual connectivity
The justiﬁcations that professionals give for engaging in perpetual connectivity have
been explored to some extent in the research literature. This theme has been
approached as a question of technology users’ strategies for navigating the conﬂicting
demands of availability and privacy. At least three general strategies can be detected
from qualitative studies of technology users. First, there are statements which revolve
around the idea that the technologies yield greater control and professional competence.
Second, we ﬁnd responses that frame employees’ escalating connectivity and work
engagement as a matter of a free,individual choice. Third, some users describe their
technology engagement with ironic detachment as if they wished to distance themselves
from the negative realities of their practice.
A general observation across the literature is that contradictory demands arising
from technology usage are mitigated by users’ perceived control. In Middleton’s con-
tribution, the respondents acknowledged that their intensifying BlackBerry use created
intrusions into their private lives, but they legitimised their usage by emphasising how
the device would indeed help to manage such intrusions. Accordingly, ‘the respond-
ents constantly rationalized as acceptable what appeared to be intrusive uses of their
devices’ (Middleton, 2007: 174). In these interpretations, then, the perceived ‘enhance-
ment of control’ legitimised an escalating or even compulsive usage.
Another related strategy of legitimation is to frame escalating expansion of work-
related connectivity as a matter of personal preference and free choice. On this account,
the choice of connectivity is explained as essential to the users’ capacity to perform
with discretion, authority and competence. Mazmanian and colleagues asserted that in
this way, the professionals ‘could experience restrictions on their autonomy as attesting
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Professionals in escalating work connectivity 75
to and conﬁrming their individual freedom and as essential to their performance as
competent and responsible professionals’ (Mazmanian et al., 2013: 12). Professionals
rationalised their practices of constant connectivity as reﬂecting their own choices and
preferences rather than organisational expectations. Similarly, in Middleton’s (2007)
study of professionals’ technology usage, the respondents emphasised the liberating
rather than the intrusive qualities of the smart phone which was seen as ‘a means of
controlling the work environment to better ﬁt personal needs, offering liberation,
freedom and peace of mind’ (Middleton, 2007: 5).
A third strategy for handling constant connectivity was ironic detachment. This is an
interesting phenomenon which the literature on professionals’ technology use has not
yet explored in any depth. It was found that users at times displayed an ironic or
humorous attitude towards their accelerating connectivity and its negative conse-
quences; an ironic detachment that seems to help them distance themselves from their
practice (Mazmanian et al., 2013: 3). The feeling of autonomy reported earlier indeed
seemed to be perpetuated by users who used irony and jokes to trivialise their every-
day routines and their costs upon their lives. Although users often joked about it ‘with
sheepish pride’, as Mazmanian and her colleagues observed, ‘the rhetorical embrace
of their compulsive use of mobile email devices could not eclipse the practical costs
of their choices and actions’ (Mazmanian et al., 2013: 16). The observation of users’
ironic framing of their compulsive practices which seemingly served as a strategy of
trivialisation and sheltering remains, to the best of our knowledge, unexplored within
studies of work-related mobile technology usage.
A relevant research strategy implies interrogating what has been termed ‘cynical
behaviour’ to describe employees’ attitudes towards working conditions that are stress-
ful or otherwise harmful but out of their control, including, for instance, escalating
work connectivity. Fleming and Spicer (2003) introduced the concept in organisational
research drawing upon Žižek’s (2002) idea that modern ideology is perpetuated by
individuals who maintain a reﬂexive distance towards the practices and ideological
mandates that they perform. To cope with circumstances that are out of their control,
employees may ‘dis-identify’ with the (ideological) roles and practices they perform by
means of irony, jokes or cynicism. By such dis-identiﬁcation, employees can sustain the
idea that they are ‘autonomous agents’ who maintain a distance to the management
ideology, while they nevertheless carry out the company’s rituals to the fullest.
In this context, we shall draw upon Žižek’s concept of dis-identiﬁcation. The concept
implies that we, paradoxically, sustain modern ideology once ‘we perform our sym-
bolic mandates without assuming them and “taking them seriously” ’ (Žižek, 2002: 70).
As we shall see, such dis-identiﬁcation may take the form of laugher and jokes used by
employees to describe their own ‘compulsive’ technology use. Noteworthy, then,
taking a humoristic or cynical attitude to invasive communication routines which are
performed on a daily basis, may, in fact, institutionalise and propel the very use of it.
Company culture that accepts or even encourages such ironic attitudes may similarly
help technologies in becoming adopted with less friction.
Research questions, method and participants
The emerging research stream on professionals’ use of communication technology has
identiﬁed that they generally appreciate novel technologies for their functionalities,
engage in escalating communication patterns and in effect voluntarily enrol themselves
in work intensiﬁcation. In this study, we seek to abstain from pre-assessing the conse-
quences of the professionals’ practices on their behalf but give attention to their views,
justiﬁcations and reﬂections. We are sceptical of the assumption that professionals are
not fully reﬂexive about their own actions and the ensuing results, including the
distinction between individual acts and the accumulated effects on the collective level.
We specify our research problem in the following guiding questions.
1. How do professionals reﬂect on their work-related technology routines—
speciﬁcally smart phones—and the consequences of their use?
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd76 New Technology, Work and Employment
2. How do professionals justify voluntarily engaging in escalating communication
3. To what extent do the professionals’ display ironic detachment and dis-
identiﬁcation justifying their use of smart phones?
In order to address these questions, we chose to focus on a single work setting since
this would allow us to explore the impact of different chains of authority. We selected
a corporate law ﬁrm (the Firm), a private provider of legal services in the ﬁelds of
commercial law, corporate and industrial property, with ofﬁces in two Brazilian states,
São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Most professionals had positions as mid-level executives
which require extensive and ongoing coordination among colleagues, clients and asso-
ciates. Access to the company was initially granted by its information technology
manager, who informed the researchers that since 2006 the Firm had been providing
smart phones to employees. Thus, the organisation represented an ideal case in so far
as it was possible to establish with certainty that the participants were using corporate
devices—smart phones that were acquired by the company and franchised to
At the time of the interviews, 53 employees at the Firm had become corporate smart
phone users. However, 11 employees did not take part in the research because they
were either temporarily working abroad, on maternity leave or on vacations. The
remaining 42 that we interviewed had smart phones with full access to corporate email,
internet and mobile telephony. We interviewed 19 directors, 4 managers, 16 lawyers
and 3 engineers (Table 1). Although women were represented across the four groups,
the majority of participants were men (31 men to 11 women). The average time of
possession of the device was 10 months, with a maximum of 2 years and a minimum
of 1 month. To protect the identity of the company and of participants, we refer to the
professionals interviewed by numeric codes (PXX).
Given the nature of the phenomenon and the questions posed, which focused on the
subjective experiences of social events and the commonalities that connect the percep-
tion of several individuals, we designed our interviews from a phenomenological
stance (Massarik, 1981). The interviews were based on broad questions aiming to
explore the observations of participants regarding corporate smart phone use in
an unobtrusive way, seeking to phrase the questions in a general and nondirective
The interviews lasted on average 45 minutes and were conducted at a place and time
chosen by the participant. These meetings would typically begin with a few minutes of
idle chatter, followed by general biographical questions. Because our goal was to
explore the essential elements that constitute the experiences of use, we ﬁrst asked
when and how they got their devices, and subsequently we continued to open ques-
tions to prompt the interviewee to explore and address different dimensions of their
experiences and enrich responses with personal opinions (McCracken, 1988).
Our initial research interest was the exploration of novel forms of interaction and
control ensuing from the adoption of smart phones, but we also asked questions about
Table 1: Characteristics of participants
Total Males Females Average
age Average time
Directors 19 15 4 45 12
Managers 4 3 1 38 8.5
Lawyers 16 11 5 30 9.8
Engineers 3 2 1 34 9
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Professionals in escalating work connectivity 77
how professionals felt that this new technology affected life outside of work, in their
family and other personal commitments, in order to expand the understanding of the
effects of the use of smart phones beyond the traditional work schedule. The interviews
were recorded and transcribed to allow in-depth data analysis and categorisation.
The analysis of the transcriptions focused on revealing common aspects in the
experiences of the smart phone users, by means of content analysis. First, we
identiﬁed passages from the interviews particularly relevant to the research question,
selecting signiﬁcant utterances as particularly relevant observations (McCracken,
1988). As patterns and themes were identiﬁed, we grouped the excerpts selected in
function of the central research questions they addressed. Finally, the general points
that emerged from the previous stages were subsumed under a consistent, parsimo-
nious set of common themes, attempting to cover as much data as possible without
In the following section, we present the common aspects experienced by the partici-
pants around the following themes: ‘The ambivalent embrace of company smart
phones’, ‘increasing control and surveillance’, and ‘justiﬁcations for self-imposed work
connectivity’. These topics function as key descriptors which synthesise the experi-
ences expressed by the interviewees. Our aim is to provide readers with sufﬁcient
empirical richness to evaluate the extent to which the speciﬁc views and experiences
uncovered by the interviewers have resonance in other settings where professionals
adopt new communication technologies. A thick description of the interview data is
provided in order to make sense of what these new forms of control might involve and
how they are interpreted by technology users.
In the following analysis, we thus foreground the professional users’ statements
which are presented in three theme sections. The ﬁrst two sections supplement the
interview reports with insights from the literature on work intensiﬁcation and new
forms of electronic surveillance, whereas the third section offers some interpretations
inspired by Žižek’s concept of dis-identiﬁcation.
Professionals’ ambivalent embrace of company smart phones
This section examines the ambivalence expressed by our participants in relation to their
smart phone practices. First, we present the reasons stated for their predominantly
positive reception of company sponsored smart phones and, second, we examine a
series of more sceptical reﬂections that the interviews also revealed. Similar to the
earlier discussed studies, we found that the smart phones were generally highly
regarded by their users since it allowed them to be continuously connected to their
workplace and solve tasks more efﬁciently even when physically absent. The device
was described by the professionals as giving them a sense of dynamism, control, more
availability and visibility to their peers and clients.
It has facilitated my communication with clients, with the ofﬁce, enabled a more dynamic work
routine when I’m out to meet with clients, keeping me available and accessible for contact even if I’m
not at the ofﬁce (P26—Lawyer).
Across the board, the participants gave emphasis to the possibility created by smart
phones to dislodge professional activities from regular place and time of work and, in
particular, that it allowed them to better manage and monitor the permanent stream of
email communication. They explained how the smart phone permitted them to manage
their work on their own terms, with discretion, and hence gave them increased control
over professional demands while away from the company.
Nowadays information exchange is much faster (. . .) A very common example that might not
happen in other sectors is when someone is in a courtroom. You can’t talk on the phone at a trial
because it disturbs the judge. What happens with the BlackBerry is that people continue sending
messages even from there. The case has been judged and you get the result at the same time
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd78 New Technology, Work and Employment
The intense demand created by reading and answering emails made the phone’s email
manager the main application used by the professionals. They also appreciated the
device for its convenience in terms of its portability and ease of operation, eliminating
restrictions of place and time.
I used to leave meetings and always ended up coming back here (. . .) Email is a bombardment. If I
spent the afternoon in an external meeting and didn’t go to the ofﬁce, the next morning my whole
day would be spent reading emails. So, I ended up forcing myself to come back to look over and
organize everything. But today, no more. I go home and stay there with the BlackBerry. It’s much
better! [laughs] (P20—Director).
Participants reported using the device in an intermittent way, many times during the
day and in short intervals of time. Their usage was embedded in a variety of environ-
ments and circumstances, in particular, during commuting: ‘I use it a lot in trafﬁc, a lot
indeed (. . .) Most of the time, it’s when going to or leaving from the ofﬁce. In this way
I can already update a lot’ (P5—Director).
It is clear from these statements that the professionals were well aware that more
work was being performed in unconventional situations and places such as in restau-
rants and automobiles. In the ﬁrst instance, however, the interviewees did not consider
this increase as an overload or an impingement on their private lives. Several referred
to the possibility of answering email before arriving to the ofﬁce as a relief because it
decreased the volume of work to be managed when arriving at the ofﬁce:
I access my messages in the morning before I come to work, so that I don’t have that inbox full when
I get here. I access them before I go to sleep as well (. . .) I don’t waste much time and it relieves me.
I confess, in the beginning, I thought I’d be anguished with the device, but no, it relieved me, it
eased my life. (P26—Lawyer)
That the participants greatly appreciated the smart phones for its portability, speed and
unobtrusiveness (silence) does not mean that they were blind to the costs of adopting
the technology. The ﬁrst answers to questions of how they conceived of the smart
phone typically revolved around greater ﬂexibility and how the device gave them the
sense of performing as more competent professionals. Yet, when asked about negative
sides, the participants offered elaborated reﬂections on pros and cons associated with
smart phone usage, including issues such as blurring of work/life boundaries, work
intensiﬁcation, encroachment upon leisure time and spousal resentments. The inter-
viewees frequently mentioned an increased workload. In many cases, additional hours
were obtained not only from otherwise idle time at the ofﬁce but also from the indivi-
dual’s leisure time:
I was on vacation with the BlackBerry and I spent three to four hours every day just answering
The professionals stated a clear awareness that the increased technology use meant an
infringement on their leisure time, facilitating work communication during times
usually devoted to private activities. Concerns over such temporal encroachment was
reﬂected by participants who observed that there was not merely a relocation of tasks
to new time slots and places, but rather an expansion of working time into these slots
I was at the airport waiting for a delayed ﬂight, I was arguing with a client, revising a draft contract
attachment. It improves your sense of productivity. It means more working hours. I’m not transfer-
ring; I’m simply increasing my workload (P11- Lawyer).
The collapse of the frontier between work and non-work time made possible by smart
phones was commonly perceived by the participants. They experienced an increasing
intertwinement of work and the private life in so far as the use of the devices paved the
way for the introduction of professional issues into their personal sphere:
In the past there was the mentality that you work when you get to work. Now it is no more so. Now
you are ubiquitously linked (P25—Engineer).
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Professionals in escalating work connectivity 79
The other day, I was going to have dinner with some friends and they took some time. They had a
problem and delayed. I didn’t even notice they were late. I asked for some wine, some snacks,
started to work [with the smart phone]. When they arrived, they apologized: ‘We were delayed.’ I
said: ‘I didn’t even notice you were late’. Private life and work is fully integrated (P21—Director).
A speciﬁc cost involved in the intertwinement of work and life frequently mentioned
by the professionals was spousal resentment towards the intrusions posed by the
highly increased connectivity that the devices enabled. Several participants thus
reported about the dismay of partners and spouses who experienced that email moni-
toring behaviours continued throughout most of participants’ waking hours. For many
participants, then, the intensive use of the mobile devices was associated with new
kinds of family conﬂicts.
So sometimes my husband complains a bit: ‘Gosh, give some attention to your family (. . .) Today is
Saturday, today is Sunday’ (. . .) He feels much more like a slave than me, because he says that I really
neglect to be with them, answering messages in moments that would otherwise be theirs.
A key source of spousal resentment was noted when users took their mobile devices
to places where earlier communication technologies had not functioned well. The
portability and long battery life made it possible to use the smart phone on holiday—
for instance, while camping, on a remote beach or at vacation homes. Noteworthy in
this regard is that participants occasionally described their own behaviour—excessive
phone use in the private sphere—as ‘abnormal behaviour’ associated with transgres-
sion of social conventions:
On my vacation I go and hide from my wife every night to read the emails (P31—Manager);
‘[. . .] even at a party, if there’s some urgent matter, I go to a corner to use it (P38—Lawyer).
This kind of compulsion, secrecy and marital conﬂicts were reported both by male and
My wife complains, and it’s one of the problems I’ve been trying to work around (. . .) Particularly
because one of my marriages ended because of excessive work (. . .) So, I’ve been trying hard to force
myself because of my wife, who really complains when I use it [the smart phone] at home.
In sum, the participants display a clear awareness that the technology is inscribing
itself into even the most intimate relations, in these cases in the marital couple, where
it generates new conﬂicts and forms of secrecy. Earlier, we have described the profes-
sionals’ ambivalent embrace of company provided smart phones. In contrast to prior
studies mentioned earlier, our participants displayed elaborated reﬂections on the
ambiguity of intense technology use, explicitly recognising the trade-offs they are
making. On the one hand, they were grateful for the technical capacities of the smart
phone, yet, on the other, they acknowledged that using the device had severely
expanded the amount and the reach of email communication that they had to attend to.
Participants were clearly concerned with a series of consequences following from their
technology routines, including blurring of spatial and temporal boundaries, loss of
discretion, longer working hours and work–family conﬂicts. Most noteworthy,
perhaps, was the degree of awareness expressed by the professionals of such negative
consequences resulting from the intensifying connectivity and their lack of viable
responses to these mechanisms.
Increasing control and surveillance
In this section, we address the kind of control and surveillance that is experienced in
the communication network established by the company provided smart phones. We
take as starting point that the effective functioning of a communication based network
depends upon managers and employees voluntarily intensifying their own patterns of
use. For instance, surveillance of individuals’ availability depends upon the establish-
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd80 New Technology, Work and Employment
ment of shared assumptions, expectations and routines among the participants. We
examine the views on surveillance and control represented by both employees and
In the viewpoint of the employees, there was indeed a clear connection between
accepting the devices and growing expectancy of availability in relation to work
demands, in and out of regular working time. They reported that the location and
activity of the user seemed to be of very little signiﬁcance from the perspective of the
caller/sender, especially when the caller/sender was a superior. A junior employee
Yesterday, I was in class [graduate studies] and I noticed that I’d got mail. I stepped outside to open
it. People know that they are asking others to reply at unusual times, but they sign ‘counting on you
. . .’ They make it clear that they want a reply right away. They send messages late-night, saying, ‘I
trust you will be able to help’ (P37—Lawyer).
However, the increased pressure for availability was perceived by the interviewees,
regardless of their formal position in the company hierarchy. A higher ranking
professional thus stated:
Look, we feel under pressure, yes, because if you have the equipment you have to be more available.
If you go to a lunch meeting you know how to measure the need to return sooner. When I’m at the
cottage, where it doesn’t pick the signal, I’ll drive to a place only to turn on the device and check
my email (P39—Lawyer).
Notable in this case and several others, the employee saw the smart phone as part and
parcel of the increasing expectancy for availability and fast response expressed by
superiors. Across the interviews, an anxiety caused by the more intense control
propitiated by mobile devices was evident: ‘I’ve already got many calls this week from
my directors; that I didn’t read an important email from an hour ago, that I don’t stay
on top of things all the time. And the device is an extension of that’ (P9—Lawyer).
Another employee put it even starker: ‘It’s hell. Because you’re always connected. There
is an implicit requirement’ (P30—Manager). In other cases, the risk of missing an
assignment and hence losing business is here indicated as the reason for self-inﬂicted,
perpetual phone monitoring:
The client said ‘gee, I wasn’t going to call, but I am glad you saw the email’ [. . .] I already knew that
it would be like that when they gave me the BlackBerry. We are talking about situations and
decisions that involve a lot of money. So, a delay might cost you; it’s money you won’t make.
Nobody cares if you are working 24 hours a day [. . .] But sometimes I give myself the right to take
some time off. It is just that, then, I see the email. You have to stay alert there, otherwise (. . .)
[worried expression] (P34—Manager).
The tendency for growing self-monitoring and expectancy on availability was also
evident in interviews with intermediate managers. They stated that they keep up high
demands on their own availability for communication and tend to pass such expecta-
tions on to their subordinates: ‘I feel obliged because of the device [. . .] and I’ll require
more from my team. The more obliged I am, the more I’ll require from my team’ (P17-
Lawyer). Some managers were blunt about their demands upon subordinates regard-
ing response time and availability: ‘I’ve already told him that I want a fast answer at any
given time, even if it’s weekend’ (P2—Director). Several explained that the smart
phones had facilitated a much closer monitoring in ‘real time’, in which instructions
and reports exchanged in a perpetual circuit: ‘I’m able to know what my team is doing,
monitoring my team in real time, knowing whether they’re following my guidelines in
terms of deadlines’ (P39—Lawyer).
All the professionals interviewed stated that they felt working conditions had
changed and now entailed much higher collective expectations on smart phone con-
nectivity. They were also attentive to the new games around expressed expectations,
justiﬁcations for non-compliancy and the defensive reactions following from the
increased collective connectivity levels:
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Professionals in escalating work connectivity 81
I demand more, I’m a lot closer to my subordinates. I can be physically away from my team, but at
the same time I’m closer. I think I used to send fewer instructions before. [. . .] When you travelled,
your group would ‘have vacations from you.’ Not now. Expectations regarding the response time
have changed, they are much higher (P32—Lawyer).
In light of the participants’ experience of the possibility of perpetual contact afforded
by the smart phone and their colleagues and superiors’ expectations of availability, the
professionals could be said to be perpetually ‘on call’ (Cooper, 2001: 26). Such increas-
ing demands upon employees for accessibility has been termed ‘the mobile imperative’
(Cooper, 2001: 28) or ‘the technological imperative’ (Sherry and Salvador, 2001). This
imperative implies, ﬁrst, that people might be called on to account for non-ownership.
Second, owners may furthermore be called to account for non-use, having the mobile
switched off, or simply why there were not available. This dimension of the mobile
imperative appeared recurrently since several participants reported being repri-
manded by superiors regarding non-availability and lack of promptness in responding.
Our professionals were aware that they were reacting to such demands, and hence
invested in power relations that reached way beyond the formal employment contract.
Thereby, they were delivering extra work and hence proﬁt, afﬁrming the general idea
that communication networks become more valuable the more users join them. Hence,
both groups were very reﬂexive about the processes of intensiﬁed communication and
surveillance in which they were involved. We shall now examine the legitimising
explanations, expressed motives and defence mechanisms that make such self-
imposed surveillance practices justiﬁable and tolerable.
Justiﬁcations for self-imposed work connectivity
In this ﬁnal analysis section, we look closer at the explanations and self-justiﬁcations
given by professionals who engaged in self-imposed escalation of work-related
connectivity. In the earlier reports, we noticed the high level of awareness and reﬂex-
ivity that the professionals expressed regarding their technology use and its impact
upon their lives inside and outside of ofﬁce. It was striking, however, that although
they reported several examples of personal conﬂicts, encroachments of work into the
private realm and an expressed sense of being more intensely monitored and con-
trolled, almost no resistance against the technology was perceivable. On the contrary,
we observed an excessive embrace of the smart phone and a quest for even more
communication through the device, that is, more messages, more speed and better
The professionals were thus placed in a situation of contradictions or paradox as
conceptualised by Tracy (2004). They navigated the uneasy relationship between
autonomy and commitment, knowing that their commitment indeed intensiﬁed their
enrolment in a culture of increased expectancy, escalating communication and work
expansion. Listening to the professionals’ justiﬁcations and rationalisations of their
practices, we detected three prevalent narrative strategies for navigating the paradox of
concomitant empowerment and powerlessness. The ﬁrst narrative strategy was one of
control, free choice and increased autonomy. The second rendered the escalating con-
nectivity less disturbing by means of ironic detachment, and trivialisation, And the
third strategy consisted in presenting the intensiﬁcation as an external, objective
fact—an inevitable component of the contemporary business environment over which
the employee had no control.
We have already presented statements about perceived enhancement of control and
autonomy following the smart phone adoption. On these occasions, professionals
justiﬁed their actions as rooted in personal preference, even presenting their inability to
disconnect from work communication as a matter of free choice. They hence conveyed
the belief that they maintain a distance to the practice, as if they remained in control of
things and could decide at any point, for instance, to disconnect from the circuit.
Clearly, the phrases promoting smart phones for work purposes—‘choose your own
time’ and ‘anywhere–anytime’ support such beliefs about an autonomous user who
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd82 New Technology, Work and Employment
achieves greater control. Repeatedly emphasising that there is a free, unconstrained
person controlling his engagement in practices that perpetually and extensively con-
strain the same person’s autonomy was a common narrative strategy among our
A second strategy consisted in trivialising the extent of the intensiﬁcation of connec-
tivity and work commitment, for instance, by downplaying the signiﬁcance of activities
happening outside ofﬁcial working hours. In our case, this happened by way of a
curious distinction that professionals made between email management as ‘not real
work’ and what they referred to as ‘intellectual’ and, allegedly, ‘real work’. The smart
phone, they said, allowed them to handle emails outside the ofﬁce, for instance, while
commuting to work, hence yielding more time at the ofﬁce to work on intellectually
demanding tasks, or real work, as it were: ‘I use it to unload, not only to delete spam,
but to read, answer and delete emails, so that when I arrive at the ofﬁce I’ve got a clean
slate and I can really work’ (P24—Director); ‘Email overload really hinders intellectual
work. We have to sit down and work is always interrupted’ (P9—Lawyer). Despite
corporative email management evidently representing a professional attribution, some
participants did not refer to this activity as real work, hence trivialising their work
activities out of regular working time.
At other times, professionals took an ironic stance towards work expansion, for
instance, by describing handling of email as a ‘waste of time’. An ironic attitude was
also invoked when interviewees laughed and joked about their ‘compulsive’ technol-
ogy use: ‘When I have no incoming messages for two hours in the BlackBerry (. . .) I
think life is no longer worth living! [laughs]’ (P27—Manager). When the professionals
enacted this form of ironic detachment, it could be viewed as a means to distance and
shelter themselves from the negative consequences of their practices. However,
drawing brieﬂy upon Žižek, the distance that individuals take towards an ideological
practice (i.e. exerting excessive work commitment) may serve to conﬁrm the idea
that they are in reality different from—and freer than—that very person who acts in
accordance with the ideology. It is, in this interpretation, precisely this notion of
distance and separation that makes it possible for individuals to exercise practices that
they even themselves recognise as burdensome, contradictory or socially harmful.
The third narrative strategy employed by our participants entailed objectifying esca-
lating work connectivity as an external, objective condition upon which they had no
inﬂuence. Several professionals framed escalating connectivity as an objective fact in as
far as they largely viewed it as something inexorable, an inevitable component of the
contemporary business environment that one simply needs to adapt to:
The device is on so that I can get attuned to the client. I work anywhere anytime. No one needs to
impose that on me. I conceive it as a dire need. The better I respond to the customer, the greater is
the chance that I will grow professionally (P37—Lawyer).
By framing practices and collective expectations as an objective fact, individuals could
tell themselves that it is not really their true self that is acting, but a self which is forced
It has now become clear that our participants make apparently contradictory state-
ments. Sometimes they afﬁrmed an enhancement of personal control following smart
phone adoption and at other times subordination under the reality of communicative
intensiﬁcation. In some cases, the same professionals would oscillate between a narra-
tive of personal control and one of powerlessness. The latter narrative invoked terms
such as ‘loss of control’, ‘dependency’, ‘compulsive use’ and ‘obsession’. Several pro-
fessionals expressed concerns that their ubiquitous smart phone routines were becom-
ing akin to compulsive behaviour. They felt that they increasingly lost the capacity to
control their inclinations to use the device, regardless of place, time and social context
and described their phone use as an addiction: ‘I work on the weekends, vacation. I
check it all the time. I sleep with it. It’s addicting’ (P16—Director). Statements about
smart phone attachment as ‘compulsive’, ‘addictive’, ‘obsessive’ and even ‘enslaving’
were frequent in our interviews:
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Professionals in escalating work connectivity 83
I can’t keep from looking at the messages that have arrived. When it’s ﬂashing red I have to see
what’s happening, what I received. It’s a little obsessive (. . .) It’s a kind of small madness
When Friday night comes, I try to turn the BlackBerry off, theoretically, not read it anymore. But
sometimes, when I’m waiting for some client’s email, there are many madmen that answer on the
weekend. I thought it was just me [. . .] Then I turn the BlackBerry on, end up reading, answering if
I see it’s urgent (P22—Lawyer).
The participants thus evaluated their own technology use as crazy, compulsive and
unhealthy. Yet, in many cases, although expressing this recognition, participants found
that the process of increasing smart phone attachment and dependency was out of their
control. They felt ‘powerless’ and invoked diagnostic terms such as addiction, com-
pulsion and paranoia:
I feel like a slave to technology. I will not say I’m sad, but it is a dependency [nervous laughs]. I’m
worried, paranoid (P37- Lawyer).
On many occasions when I was relaxing, having fun, I would then get a message, something I
needed to reply to. My mood changes completely. It is complicated (. . .) But you can only become
aware that it is going to be like that once you begin to experience the device. It’s insane!’
How should the many contradictory statements on the effects of smart phone usage
be interpreted? Borrowing upon Žižek and his interpreters within organisation studies,
it is, in fact, the professionals’ idea of a separation between the self and the practice
performed that perpetuates the intensiﬁcation. The case was not simply, then, that the
professionals were misguided by a false belief about their technology use as an indi-
vidual, free choice. It is rather their full awareness of exerting a practice that has many
harmful effects, combined with the idea that they could detach themselves from that
practice, which permits the escalation to go on. Following Žižek (2002), for an ideo-
logical identiﬁcation to work, it requires a degree of dis-identiﬁcation, since no modern
individual or (professional who understands themselves as reﬂexive, free and autono-
mous) will completely take on an ideological identity (Žižek, 2002: 70). The idea of
maintaining a distance and free choice with respect to the practice which the profes-
sionals performed indeed seemed to justify performing it to the fullest on a daily basis.
Our observation that some professionals framed escalating connectivity as an objec-
tive condition, while others expressed powerlessness in regard to the process, can be
interpreted in a similar vein, that is, as narrative strategies that justify the practices of
intensiﬁcation. That fact that many participants oscillated between the narrative of
control and the ones of objectivity and powerlessness is not, we submit, an indication
of diluted perceptions. Rather, we suggest, it demonstrates that the professionals
were highly reﬂexive about their technology use, both in terms of its facilitating
capacities, its harmful social consequences and their own increasingly uncontrollable
attachment to it.
This study sought to address a key challenge in the existing literature on professionals’
use of communication technology. The simultaneous increase in autonomy and com-
pulsion in contemporary workplaces is indeed intriguing and deserves more careful
consideration. The ﬁndings of our study supplement key conclusions drawn so far in
this literature, in some respects paralleling these while in other regards challenging
them. Hence, when asked to reﬂect on their work-related smart phone routines and
their consequences, professionals expressed enthusiasm corresponding to ﬁndings in
previous research on the issue. Our interviewees conveyed appreciation for the smart
phone in terms of its portability and ease of operation, making it possible to eliminate
place and time restrictions. The newfound ﬂexibility, speed and accuracy in data
management gave the users a sensation of greater control and of being able to better
exercise their competences.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd84 New Technology, Work and Employment
Yet, at the same time, the professionals were by no means ignorant to the trade offs
they were making when adopting the company provided smart phone. They were
acutely observant to the fact that work activities were increasingly performed in uncon-
ventional time slots and at spaces hitherto unconnected to the workplace. Furthermore,
they expressed awareness of the increased control and surveillance from superiors that
they became subjected to in the escalating communication routines. The professionals
thus realised how the smart phone would begin to act as a vehicle of managerial
power. Once the technology was adopted, they reported, the devices began to channel
managerial goals such as demands for accessibility, promptness, accuracy and so on.
That spousal resentment and new kinds of family conﬂicts arose from such encroach-
ments was recounted by several of our interviewees.
Compared with previous research on work-related use of communication technol-
ogy examined at the outset of the article, the professionals in this study were found to
be highly reﬂexive on the ambiguities of their smart phone routines. Our study does
not, therefore, attest to the autonomy paradox presented by recent research on the issue
discussed at the outset of the article. This paradox relied upon an apparent contradic-
tion between, on the one hand, what technology users say about greater personal
autonomy and, on the other, their ‘unwitting’ enrollment in practices of work expan-
sion and intensiﬁed control. In our case, the professionals themselves were well aware
that their smart phone usage involved both efﬁciency gains and a process of work
escalation which entailed a range of harmful effects. They also acknowledged that they
were themselves active and conscious players in this process.
Noting the professionals’ high awareness of these ambiguities made it urgent to
consider how they justiﬁed voluntarily engaging in escalating communication prac-
tices. We hence gave acute attention to the set of justiﬁcations, rationalisations and
concerns by which our interviewees ascribed meaning to their practice. Taking this
approach, we sought to probe deeper into the intriguing observation, shared with
previous studies—that professional technology users tend to gradually restrict aspects
of their own autonomy and yet justify such choices as enhancing their autonomy.
From the professionals’ detailed accounts, we reconstructed three narrative strat-
egies for navigating through this fundamental contradiction and render it less disturb-
ing. First, a strategy invoked the idea of an autonomous self, separated from and in full
control of, the practices of escalating work communication. Repeatedly emphasising
that the device gave them greater control was a common narrative component which,
by exclusively accentuating the side of autonomy and seemingly dismantled the contra-
diction between enhanced autonomy and loss of control. The frequent use of the terms
‘personal choice’ or ‘free choice’ was another means of conﬁrming the existence of an
autonomous self that freely chooses to engage in communication practices.
The second strategy was one of ironic detachment and trivialisation. Laughing about
excessive communication habits and trivialising work activities that involved the
device were other ways of dis-identifying with the role that was actually performed.
These helped to conﬁrm an unconstrained self that (still) could make free choices with
respect to smart phone usage. Noteworthy was the distinction between ‘quasi work’
and ‘real work’ that some interviewees articulated, and which downplayed the fact that
they would carry out work activities outside of normal ofﬁce hours and even at very
private occasions (such as at dinner parties or in the bedroom).
The third narrative strategy rendered the intensiﬁcation of work communication as
an inescapable, objective and ‘external’ fact upon which they had no inﬂuence. Some
presented it as something inexorable, a new component of the contemporary business
environment that one simply needed to adapt to. In many cases, the strategy of objec-
tiﬁcation entailed statements of dependency and a smart phone attachment that had
gone out of their control. Some participants felt ‘powerlessness’ and used diagnostic
terms such as ‘addiction’, ‘compulsion’ and ‘paranoia’. The fact that it was common to
oscillate between expressions of control and powerlessness does not necessarily attest
to any deep-seated confusion in the interviewees. In our estimation, it rather displayed
their elaborate reﬂections on technology usage, including the efﬁciency gains of the
device, its detrimental social effects and their own close attachment to it.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Professionals in escalating work connectivity 85
This study reﬂects the experiences of smart phone users in the ﬁrst phase of its
adoption in the Brazilian corporate environment. Although such devices largely retain
the same functionalities, since 2007 mobile work technology has continued to develop,
and new issues regarding information and communication patterns have likely
emerged. Given this limitation of our study and its restriction to a speciﬁc occupational
group in a particular organisational setting, further investigations into the theme across
different areas of expertise and organisational contexts are needed. We suggest that our
results may be found to have a broader relevance, particularly with regards to other
knowledge workers in similar highly competitive, corporate businesses contexts. Our
key critical ﬁnding is that it is not sufﬁcient to simply assert that professional, ‘exces-
sive’ technology users are misguided by a false belief about their usage as an act of
individual, free choice. In our case, it was indeed their full awareness of exerting a
practice which has harmful effects, combined with the idea that they could detach
themselves from that practice, which permitted the escalation to continue.
The authors wish to warmly thank the two anonymous readers and the editors for their
fruitful comments on an earlier draft of this article. Kaspar Villadsen wishes to
acknowledge the support from CAPES (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal
de Nível Superior), Brazil, which made this work possible. Grant number 8598126.
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