Living in a digital world - blessing or curse? Julian Matteucci

Technology has transformed how we live. With real-time global information constantly available, many of us routinely use smartphones or iPads. But, views on the merits of tech-gadgets vary.

Julian Matteucci

Over the past couple of decades, technology has changed every aspect of modern life, both at work and at play. According to Dallas-based Louise Pentland, Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer at Nokia, around a third of smartphones are now used for business, whether provided by employers, or employees using their own personal devices at work. ‘Our products and services have helped with the transition of work, which used to be somewhere that you went to, but is now something that you can do, whenever and wherever you choose,’ she says.

Like many sectors, the legal services world and how law is practiced has been dramatically affected by the advances in technology. For Maurice Allen, Finance Partner in the London office of US law firm Ropes & Gray, instant 24/7 availability through smartphones, and the ability to host virtual meetings in multiple locations via Telepresence, have been positive consequences of the technological progress.

Proof of how his own working life has altered, Fernando Peláez-Pier, partner at Venezuelan law firm Hoet Peláez Castillo & Duque and former IBA President, responded to Global Insight’s questions from his iPad the day after landing in Tokyo. ‘The impact of technology in our practice has been tremendous in many respects: in our daily work, and in relations with our clients and our colleagues both within and outside the firm,’ he says.

Many remember how it used to be. Brussels-based Michael Reynolds, European Antitrust Law Partner at Allen & Overy and current President of the IBA, started as a lawyer in the age of the telex. ‘These took ages to arrive, were very cumbersome, and all the texts used to be in capital letters rather like a telegram.’ Reynolds also remembers the first fax machine being installed in his firm’s office in 1982. ‘It was the size of a small house; I just don’t know how we ran large law firms and bodies like the IBA with this kind of technology but we did.’

Game changer

Reynolds believes that the BlackBerry smartphone has been the biggest driver of change, because its use means that one is contactable almost everywhere, at any time of day and night except in an aeroplane, although that is about to change as well. ‘On the whole, this is a good thing because it means that one gets quick decisions.’

The development of teleconferencing and video conferences has also been a huge change for the IBA. ‘As we frequently have meetings with lawyers in ten or more countries on a regular basis, the ability to do this without leaving the office, or when you are travelling to far-off parts, is great.’ As a result, Reynolds largely welcomes these changes. ‘They have made life a lot easier,’ he says.

Other positive consequences are that the advice sent through BlackBerrys tends to be more commercial and pithy, believes Ropes & Gray’s Allen, while Hoet Peláez Castillo & Duque’s Peláez-Pier says that technology’s introduction of paperless practices is one of its greatest advancements.

Staying connected

The changes do mean, however, that lawyers have had to up their game. Technologies, especially electronic communications, have imposed important challenges on law firms in relation to quality control issues and communications with clients. They have obliged law firms to introduce different policies to ensure that the quality of advice across the board does not drop off and that relations with clients remain solid.

Because communications are nowadays, generally, through email, clients know that their enquiries have been received immediately after being sent – whether on desktops, laptops or mobile devices. As a result, clients expect immediate replies to their requests, according to Peláez-Pier. ‘This implies that we must constantly be checking our inbox and that is why we cannot live without mobiles such as BlackBerry, iPhone and other devices.’

Consequently, Peláez-Pier who considers himself to be a well-organised person has nonetheless had to learn about technology, so as to make best use of the different tools that professionals now have to communicate with, and to serve clients. In turn, this has obliged him to be even more organised.

What goes around...

Those working outside the legal profession have also seen their working lives radically altered by technology. Coming from the tech-world angle, Alex Jinivizian, Head of Enterprise Strategy at US broadband and telecommunications company, Verizon Communications, understands this better than most. Because he has a team which is distributed across the world, flexible working and access to corporate applications such as intranet, email, instant messaging and collaboration tools, are essential to the company’s collective productivity and agility.

Consequently, Jinivizian possesses multiple corporate-owned products laptop, smartphone and tablet. ‘These devices have seamless access to the information and tools that I require to communicate – audio and web conferencing, email and shared documents – and to manage my team effectively across multiple time zones.’

Examples include expense and time sheets now being approved via email through a linked business process to an internal software system tailored to the organisations and designed to perform certain administrative tasks, such as a SAP system. In years past, this would have been a cumbersome paper-based process; but now, receipts submissions and approvals can effectively be carried out online. Verizon also actively utilises online ‘whiteboarding’ tools to collaborate on projects where collective input is required. These tools allow shared files to be viewed through an on-screen whiteboard, which can be accessed via video or data conferencing.

‘We essentially practice what we preach to our customers in our Verizon Mobile Workforce Solutions portfolio, enabling the enterprise to allow secure access from any device, often an employee’s own device, to the tools and applications required to be effective at work,’ says Jinivizian.

Global collaboration

At Nokia, Pentland’s global team of more than 270 people in over 25 countries also works seamlessly. ‘Someone in our team, somewhere in the world, is working every hour of every single day of the year,’ she says.

And because Nokia’s employees spend a lot of time working collaboratively on documents, the latest Nokia Lumia Smartphones with Microsoft Office built in – helps them to be more productive, even when they are travelling, or during breaks between meetings or court sessions.

Technology has certainly played a large part in improving Nokia’s productivity. But it has also permitted such global companies to enjoy the benefits of 24/7 working, while allowing their staff to strive for a happy work balance. ‘If you have to be on an occasional early or late call during the week, or even at the weekend, we can now accomplish much more without major disruption to our personal lives,’ says Pentland.

Under pressure

Nonetheless, the potential downside of a world in which information is endlessly accessible is the increased pressure levels on day-to-day work. For lawyers and many other professionals, it is important to manage the stress resulting from managing many matters and relations at the same time.

Working through mobile devices has invaded non-work-related time, with many feeling as though they remain physically tied to their offices. Potentially, they never clock off. While Ropes & Gray’s Allen can leave the office early or go on holiday without feeling guilty, there remains an expectation that he will be available to contact on work matters during these periods of ‘downtime’. He says that you are never free of the office, or shielded from clients.  ‘You must learn to turn them off; otherwise you end up working 24/7,’ says Hoet Peláez Castillo & Duque’s Peláez-Pier.

Soon there will be no escape even when up in the air or travelling by rail. Planes and underground trains are now being connected. ‘It’s important to be able to manage technology effectively from an individual perspective,’ says Verizon’s Jinivizian.

In control

On the whole, Jinivizian believes that technology’s advancement has far more positives than negatives for work, while Nokia’s Pentland does not believe that technology creates a downside. ‘People used to worry that due to technological advances, employers would expect employees to be available 24/7. I don’t see that; and as a manager of people, I don’t expect that either. Technology, when properly used, puts control in the hands of the individual,’ she says.

For example, Pentland always switches her phone off at night and has never understood why anyone would leave their phone on. ‘But that is their choice! If you call me in the middle of my night, I won’t answer.’ But at the first opportune moment she will respond; it may even be the first thing Pentland does before getting out of bed.

The biggest challenge Pentland has right now is her children wanting every new gadget. Naturally, as a parent Pentland remains anxious about the access to the internet that children have and the potential impact on their privacy. ‘The peace of mind that comes from knowing that we can contact each other wherever they are is an important counter for those concerns,’ she says.

Digital world

Certainly the boundary between work and non-work-related time has become blurred. According to Jinivizian, this sentiment is not unique: one of the most profound industry trends over the past few years has been the consumerisation of technology. Whereas ten years ago, corporate IT were dictating what was to be used/accessed at work, and had the newest and most compelling applications at their disposal, the tables have been turned in favour of the consumer. ‘This has largely been instigated by the smartphone, tablet and application stores,’ he says.

Jinivizian himself has become more of a digital consumer. Like many others, he watches and streams films over the internet; orders his shopping online and has it delivered to his door and books tickets for shows online. ‘And I spend too much time looking at screens,’ he says.

This would seem to be the case for a large number of professionals, who see no distinction between the toys they use for work and leisure time, and are ready to embrace any form of new technology. Because technology gives you instant information and access to practically everything you want to know and learn, it has become the norm to be attached to devices, even during downtime moments.

In recognition of this increased interest in technology amongst employees and their desire to use up-to-the-minute personal devices for work purposes, many companies have introduced ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) programmes for employees. Stefan Weidert, Co-Chair of the IBA Technology Law Committee and a partner at Gleiss Lutz’s Berlin office, believes that BYOD programmes have transformed employee work habits, increasing the options for flexible working arrangements.

BYOD programmes have also made the distinction between work and play harder to make, given their widespread implementation across many companies. ‘Through such devices, employees can increasingly carry out their work wherever they are; quite often, employees might even feel that they are expected to do so, even during vacations,’ says Weidert.

Furthermore, companies of all sizes face growing legal ramifications in relation to the need to secure their data on employees’ personal devices, with employees in some cases accessing company information on devices that the company may not have access to, or which may not be secure.

According to Zürich-based Clara-Ann Gordon, Co-Chair of the IBA Technology Law Committee and a partner at Pestalozzi, there have been several legal challenges associated with BYOD technologies. Inadvertently, employees often use personal devices in a way that risks data loss or leakage for their company. ‘Significant privacy, security and legal challenges, costs and threats of litigation exist, and those challenges vary depending on several factors specific to the organisation, industry and the extent of its BYOD programme,’ says Gordon

Gadgets also allow you to be in permanent contact, through social networks, with your family and friends – no matter where you are – as well as through applications such as FaceTime or Skype. Plus telephone calls now cost less, so communications with friends and family abroad are easier than ever before.

‘It means that I can stay in touch with what matters to me outside of work and yet be available to others, as working in a global company does not mean I can only work Monday to Friday, 9-5,’ says Pentland. Access to social media and the ability to share photos and video quickly with her family and friends mean that Pentland can make the most out of her personal, as well as her work, time.

Not that every potential consumer enjoys identical levels of access to technology a digital divide exists between users of technology in urban and rural environments that remains a major issue for businesses and consumers. There are government-sponsored plans in the UK to guarantee 2MB access to every home; but working in high-tech, Verizon’s Jinivizian sees rural communities continually disadvantaged by poor internet access speeds and mobile data (3G+) availability. ‘It’s not a straightforward problem to solve by any means,’ he says.

The good old days

Communication may now be faster and more efficient for most technology users, but there are, of course, some aspects of the past for which some professionals are nostalgic. In the legal world, Ropes & Gray’s Allen believes that deadlines were more sensible, and the face-to-face meeting more efficient and ultimately cheaper for the client.

Hoet Peláez Castillo & Duque’s Peláez-Pier like Allen & Overy’s Reynolds also remembers when telex was introduced. ‘This was a revolution in terms of how lawyers communicated with clients,’ he says. Comparing those times with the present, where instant communications impose numerous new challenges on how the firm practises, he believes that we all used to have much more time to think!

Others long for the days when someone else would do their filing. ‘I suspect I am not the only person who feels that way,’ says Nokia’s Pentland, who starts each New Year with the resolution to be organised and leave each week with an empty inbox. But things get busy and quickly deteriorate, until Pentland ends up with thousands of messages in her inbox. ‘I’ve dealt with them all, of course, but they keep stacking up until Outlook eventually tells me it is about to run out of space.’

Jinivizian is also nostalgic for aspects of his non-work related life. ‘I miss receiving letters from people, as I enjoy writing them; being sent photos in the post rather than over email; and receiving a phone call rather than a text.’

Blending the old with the new, Peláez-Pier has happily resigned himself to fusing one of his favourite hobbies – reading, especially Latin American literature with technology. Peláez-Pier  thought that he would never read an electronic book because it would be impossible to substitute the pleasure of reading a hard copy – the touch of a book, the highlighting of paragraphs and scribbling of notes. ‘And guess what? Nowadays when I travel, it is great to bring along the books that I am reading on my iPad.’

Julian Matteucci is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at