Technology vs. the snow day

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More than a foot of snow fell overnight.

Children — and yes, teachers — delight and frolic in the snow as schools are closed.

With the street not yet plowed, others take a day off from work.

And as we saw in late December, a snowstorm can even postpone a football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings. (By the way, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell was right declaring that delaying a football game due to snow signals the “wussification” of America.) This winter seems to be the season of the snow day.

What about me? I’m working. In fact, I have not had a true snow day in 20 years. I blame technology.

This year marks my 20th anniversary of working in a home office. It started out with dial-up Internet and a fax machine. That Internet connection grew faster over time. Now high-speed broadband allows for instantaneous communications and access to seemingly infinite amounts of information and analysis, products from around the world, not to mention ever-expanding forms of entertainment.

Added into the mix most recently has been increased mobility. Laptops, wireless broadband connections/hotspots, BlackBerrys, iPhones, iPads and other tablets turn wherever you happen to be located at the moment into your office. Travel, for business or otherwise, no longer means being away from work. Technology assures that no matter where you happen to be, you’re still in the office — the virtual office.

Of course, there is the fact that this also makes it a heck of a lot easier for people to goof off. Check out the latest YouTube videos, watch the television show you missed last week, or catch up with friends on Facebook. That’s lost time to business.

In the past, the Gartner Group has reported that U.S. firms experience 40 percent lost productivity due to non-work Internet surfing, and Gallup found that the average employee uses office computers for personal use for 75 minutes a day. In addition, a RescueTime study in May estimated that when Google replaced its homepage logo with a playable Pac-Man for one day, it cost the U.S. economy 4.8 million lost man-hours and $120 million in lost productivity.

But these anecdotal negatives must be set against the tremendous benefits. It’s clear that innovation and investments in broadband technology, and the expanded adoption of such technology, have been overwhelming plusses for businesses and the economy. Business owners and their employees being able to work during snowstorms serves as but one, minor illustration.

In June, the White House summed up some of the broad realities: “The economic benefits of mobile broadband are estimated to be significant. According to a recent study, GDP can increase $7 to $10 for every dollar invested in mobile wireless broadband networks. Wireless providers directly employ more than 268,000 people, a number that has grown about 6 percent year-over-year for the last four years. Moreover, mobile wireless broadband generates huge productivity gains to the U.S. economy; some estimate that those benefits are valued at $28 billion per year and rising, with combined mobile wireless voice and broadband productivity gains set to reach $427 billion annually by 2016.”

Despite the lack of snow days, I’ve benefited enormously from the leaps ahead in mobile and broadband technologies, as have the people with which I work.

Other non-economic costs, though, also can come into play. The home and/or virtual office, for example, can invade other parts of life. In a very real sense, work never fully goes away. Especially for those who enjoy what they do for a living, it’s rather easy to let time working crowd out family, faith and leisure time.

Also, the reach of the virtual office can translate into employers and clients assuming that you are reachable any time — day, night, weekends or vacations.

In such cases, technology can lead to the individual being lost in or subsumed by work. Ironically, the challenge to maintain a full and balanced life seems to have become more difficult even as technology empowers us. Work is an important part of life. Indeed, when asked, who are you, or what do you do, many respond by noting their chosen careers. But life is much more than work and career — or at least it should be.

In my own case, 20 years of the home/virtual office has been, on balance, a big positive. It has led to more time working and increased productivity. But it also has meant expanded time with the family and for family-related undertakings, such as being active in church and at the children’s schools, more so than I ever could be with a daily commute.

Of course, the occasional snow day would be nice. But then again, it’s not so bad working at my desk and looking out the window at my son shoveling the driveway. Come to think of it, the lack of snow days turns out to be much easier on the back, while my son earns a few bucks. There are those productivity gains again.

Keating, chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, can be reached at rkeating@sbecouncil.org.