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After a 4 month summer hiatus, one of my favorite local events, Social Media Breakfast Ottawa returned this morning for it’s 24th instalment. Repeat presenter Sam Ladner also returned to speak to a packed house at The Great Canadian Theatre Company about her recent project Mobile Work Life. Dr. Sam Ladner is a sociologist specializing in the social aspects of technological change. She mixes private-sector consulting work with academic research and teaching. Primarily an ethnographer, Sam is founder and principal with Copernicus Consulting, a social research company that consults on digital and industrial product design, organizational change and consumer culture.

As the mobile platform continues to evolve and grow in popularity we are faced with the question “What is the impact of smartphone use on the work/life balance?” In her research, Ladner found that not only are people bringing their work life home with them, but they are also bringing their domestic lives to work. Ladner not only examined what this shift means to marketers, but also how smartphone use is changing social interactions.

Over the years technology has changed. Ladner reminises to the days when her family was the only one on the block with an answering machine – now virtually everyone owns a cell phone, the majority of which are smartphones. This technological shift is changing the way we communicate. With mobile, you are no longer contacting a place, you are contacting a person. Twenty years ago you would pick up the phone and call someone’s house – or send a letter to their physical mailbox. Today, we call people. We text people. We email people. We send calendar invites to people. We Facebook and Tweet people. All of these channels of communication are going right to the individual – right to the smartphone in their pocket.

While we now have more channels to contact others, the social context in which we do so is also becoming more complex. There is no longer a distinct barrier between home life, work life, liesure life, etc. They now overlap each other. Yes there are people who check their work email after dinner, or call their coworkers for last minute changes to the morning presentation before bed. But at the same time, we are responding to personal text messages and checking our fantasy sports team, for example, at the workplace. But it doesn’t end there. We now have our time between work life and home life – called “interspace”. Sitting in traffic, during our lunch break, etc. This is where much of the overlap happens.

So what impact does this have on our social interactions? The problem with this shift is that most of us are now sending information to others without understanding the social context on the other end. Is that other party at work? In a meeting? Eating dinner with their family? At a hockey game? On vacation? We don’t know. And most of the time, due to the aforementioned overlap, it doesn’t matter. They will respond regardless.

But with this, other problems arise. You are now expected to always be available for communication with your various social groups. Family. Friends. Work. They all feel entitled to be able to communicate with you at all times. And because of this, many people are finding themselves “slaves” to their smartphones. Does your smartphone sit next to your bed? Do you check your texts or emails in the middle of the night? While some think this is normal, others suggest “parking” you smartphone in a specific location overnight, outside the bedroom.

However, we cannot put all the blame on the technology. Sure, the smartphone’s capabilities is what allows this to happen. But it’s our changing culture – the “panic culture” as Ladner puts it. We have this sense of urgency that we must always be available and respond in the most timely manner possible. While some people may view this as productive, Ladner argues that organizations tend to have more speed than sense. Most people will respond to an email right away rather than sitting back and thinking about it. “Your organization cannot innovate if you don’t give it time to reflect” says Ladner.

Ladner undoubtedly hit home with the majority of the audience this morning. I observed many people, including myself, nodding along to the points she was making. Are you ever just sitting around, waiting for something – the bus let’s say – and you pull out your smartphone for no reason. Unprompted. Just to look around? I do that all the time.

As the technology continues to evolve, and mobile becomes more of our every day life, how will we adapt? What impact will this continue to have on our work/life balance?

Thanks to everyone who came as well as the organizers for making this another very successful Social Media Breakfast. Stay tuned for the next Social Media Breakfast Ottawa on October 19, 2011: Social Business Strategies with IBM. I hope to see you there!

Follow Sam Ladner on Twitter @sladner and her project Mobile Work Life @mobileworklife