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Tethered by a high-tech leash

For virtually all “knowledge workers,” the days of leaving the office at the office are gone. Blackberry pagers, cell phones and “always on” Internet access mean workers, too, must always be on.
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He answers his cell phone during showers. In fact, he walks around the house — even on weekends — with his headset on, ready to answer calls at a moment’s notice. When his computer dings because new mail has arrived, the Pavlovian reaction is obvious. Most people would describe him as a workaholic, or, in the parlance of the technology industry, a “day extender.” He might be extreme, but he’s hardly alone. Those with tech toys and Internet access do about an hour of extra work from home every night, a recent study says.

“Xisfree," a member of an online Workaholics Anonymous club, also suffers from the obsessive need to use her laptop computer at any time of the day or night. But at least she is getting help. Her boyfriend is in complete denial, and technology may soon bring an end to their six-year romance, she said. XisFree, 34, who lives in Manhattan, described her life in an e-mail exhange conducted partly under battery power during New York’s recent blackout.

“I think that I can actually measure the changes that have happened over the last six years as his use of technology increased,” she said. “He can be glued to his e-mail. ... We often feel like we are having a relationship by voice-mail messages.”

She blames her boyfriend for failing to establish boundaries, but his workplace atmosphere hardly helps. As a management consultant, he is basically a “slave” to clients,” she said.

“They tell clients they will fly anywhere at any time, and stay there as long as is necessary. They are constantly having to respond,” she said. “He must always be checking voice mail on weekends, because on Sunday morning at 7 a.m. he may have a conference call.”

If the line between work life and home life has become increasingly blurred, technology serves as the foggy glasses. For virtually all “knowledge workers,” the days of leaving the office at the office are gone. Blackberry pagers, cell phones and “always on” Internet access mean workers, too, must always be on.

“The challenge becomes, how do you turn it off? How do you stop working?” says Keith Greene, director of organizational programs at the Society for Human Resource Management. “Now it’s so easy to start working on a project at 2 a.m. when the kids are asleep.”

Such work creep started in earnest in the early 1990s when laptop computers, complete with docking stations, started heading home with executives at night, allowing them to easily replicate their office environment anywhere. Computer makers seized on the trend and started marketing laptops for “day extenders,” office workers who can be enticed to work an extra hour or two a day by logging in from home.

Even though laptop computers — and the requisite technical support — can be expensive, companies quickly learned they recouped the investment when workers started logging in from home. A Gartner Group study in 1998 showed that employees who work an extra three hours a week from home make up the added costs.

But all those laptop computers, and more recently home computers configured to connect to the office, have created a dog-chasing-its tail environment, says Greene.

“It’s a philosophical thing, and it starts at a more senior level,” he said. “If you work for a VP who sends e-mail Friday night at 10 p.m., the chances of you responding are much greater than if it came from a peer.”

Not in the job description
At most offices, the electronic tether is hardly discussed and certainly is not part of the job description — it’s just part of staying “on top of things,” said Gil Gordon, a telecommuting consultant.

“My hunch is there are very few companies that make it an explicit expectation — ‘You are expected to check voice mail twice a night.’ More likely there are subtle cues thrown out like, ‘We are keeping you in the loop.’ ”

Five years ago, such cues might have hit employee resistance but not now, with the economy in a prolonged slump, Gordon said.

“In today’s environment, with reduced head counts, it doesn’t take too many signals sent before employees begin to sense fear and worry about downsizing,” he said. “I’ve never seen the office work force as stretched out as it is today.”

There’s nothing subtle about the work environment that XisFree’s boyfriend faces.

“You cannot say, ‘I just won’t be available,’ ” she said, “You can’t say, ‘I really need to be out of town for the weekend without checking voice mail.’ ”

An hour's work from home
Home Net access and e-mail have blurred the line even more, researchers have said. It certainly did for another member of Workaholics Anonymous, Karen Maskell, who said gaining access to her office files from home recently has made her life one continuous stream of work.

“My organization has a virtual private network that allows me to dial in from home whenever I want. Talk about a ‘day extender!’,” Maskell said. “I find myself working from home in the morning, going to work for 8-10 hours, then working from home in the evening, too. Not to mention weekends.”

Maskell, who is trying to recover from workaholism, now works about 60 hours per week, down from 80 three years ago. Her company’s management prides itself on promoting a healthy work-life balance, she said, but it’s only a mirage. While employees usually leave work before 6 p.m. every day, suggesting a healthy lifestyle, many log in and work at night from home, allowing management to live in “ignorant bliss” of the real work conditions.

“A director I work with says there’s a problem if she sees people working at their desk after 5 or 6 in the evening. Well, she doesn’t see everyone working at home,” Maskell said.

And they are working at home. A landmark study by the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland concluded in February that people with Web access at home log in and work an extra 5.9 hours per week on average, or about an hour a day.

“It really is a matter of the workplace knowing it can get those extra hours,” said Roland Rust, who directed the study. “They know they can get away with it now.”

But there is another side to the coin when employees work from home. Joanne Pratt, a telecommuting consultant, draws a sharp distinction between teleworkers — who spend entire days working at home — and day extenders, who just cram in some extra e-mail at night.

People who consider themselves teleworkers actually do a very good job of setting boundaries between work and home, she said, perhaps because they have more practice setting boundaries. A recent study Pratt conducted showed teleworkers work about 37 hours per week, the same as their office-bound comrades. And telecommuters with broadband Internet access work about the same number of hours as those restricted to dial-up, indicating that in this group, always-on is not an inevitable working condition.

“In the various studies I’ve done, people say they are not working more hours,” Pratt said. “I think they are more productive because they aren’t interrupted all the time and can get the work done without increasing their hours.”

There are benefits to the blending of work and home life, Rust said. While his study indicated people put in extra work time at home, they take some of it back during the day. Office workers spend about half an hour a day taking care of personal business on company time, the study said.

“It’s just reality. If there’s a lot of work shifted to home, there will be personal stuff shifted to work,” Rust said.

Cell phone-free weekends?
Still, in a society that is quickly losing the notion that the most appropriate work hours are from 9 to 5, white-collar workers often are at a loss in trying to draw new limits. XisFree, for example, has tried “cell phone free” weekends with her boyfriend, to no avail.

“That’s pretty hopeless,” she said. “There’s a lot of anxiety involved.”

And so far, while human resource departments might encourage balanced lifestyles, Greene, of the human resource society, said he has yet to hear of a firm which has made bold pronouncements in that direction.

“Has there been a CEO to say, ‘If I get e-mail between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., you’re fired?’ I’ve not seen anybody do that,” he said. “Everybody says, ‘No, no, no, we don’t want you to work,’ but then people keep being asked to do more.”