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BlackBerry changing life-work balance and altering the notion of time

Events planner Katherine Parris rarely shuts off her BlackBerry,mentioning just Christmas Day and Thanksgiving as examples of when shewould turn it off. Couples get married on Christmas Eve, so the deviceis on.

MONTREAL - It's all about knowing what's going on.

Events planner Katherine Parris rarely shuts off her BlackBerry, mentioning just Christmas Day and Thanksgiving as examples of when she would turn it off. Couples get married on Christmas Eve, so the device is on.

"It can kind of come within your work and life balance," Parris said diplomatically.

Staff can email her to tell her how a corporate event unfolded, or if there's a problem, Parris says she can take care of it.

"You know right away," said Parris, who runs Events by Parris in Toronto.

Prof. Rhonda McEwen of the University of Toronto said the BlackBerry and mobile communications in general are altering people's notions about time and making it flexible.

"If work was 9 to 5, the time itself was bounded by what was work and home," said McEwen, adding that regularly being contacted after work was "ridiculous" in the pre-BlackBerry era.

It's a false sense of freedom that workers sometimes have because "it's freedom to do more work," said McEwen, who teaches in the Faculty of Information Studies and specializes in new media and the information practices of young people.

It's up to individuals or organizations to set boundaries on how it should be used after work, McEwen said, noting that more than white-collar workers now use the device.

In his book "BlackBerry Planet" (Wiley), author Alastair Sweeny writes about what he calls "the little device that took the world by storm."

Sweeny devotes a chapter to how the BlackBerry, known for its secure email that's delivered directly into the smartphone, is affecting people at work and home.

"It has altered the boundaries of work and play and permanently changed the way we behave," Sweeny writes in his newly released book.

Employees can work smarter and be more productive and it helps with their flexibility in terms of being in or out of their offices, he said, but with all of its features they can also waste time.

The BlackBerry also allows its users to surf the Internet, stream video, listen to music, play games and use countless software applications to do things like look at maps, get stock trading information and airline boarding information.

On the homefront, some employees don't know how to disengage from it, Sweeny said from Ottawa.

"There's the problem of bringing the device home and not being able to turn it off."

While the device has been called "CrackBerry" for those who can't keep their thumbs and eyes off it, RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie has said it means that workers don't always have to be in their offices.

"I think there's an overwhelming benefit of freedom that is obvious," he said when commenting on the 10th anniversary of the BlackBerry. "It has really changed how organizations have functioned."

He noted that users have to know their limits.

"Like anything, it can be abused."

Technology analyst Duncan Stewart described the transformation of work for lawyers, accountants and office workers as "radical."

"Information now goes back and forth within minutes," said Stewart, director of research and analysis at DSam Consulting in Toronto.

"This velocity of information flow fundamentally transforms the professional services world and that will never go away," Stewart said.

He said the downside is having to do more work, but it can increase productivity.

"The fact that I have to do a little bit of work on the weekends very often prevents me from having to do hours of work when Monday rolls around."

Parris, who describes herself as a workaholic, has had her BlackBerry for two years and said it makes her job easier, adding that previously she was always on the phone.

While brides need personal attention, other problems like a late wedding cake can be dealt with via BlackBerry, she said.

But there is a hitch with the device.

"You are accessible and that's the great part about it, but there's also the dependency."

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