Can You Be Too Connected? Part 1

In What's Happening to Home, Author Maggie Jackson says technology can make it impossible to leave the office behind

After catching herself rushing through her daughters' bedtime stories so that she could get back to her computer one evening, journalist Maggie Jackson decided to take a hard look at her work/life balance. Jackson, then a workplace columnist for the Associated Press, had made setting aside time for her daughters a priority. Yet thanks to e-mail, cell phones, and the other instant communications devices most professions require these days, work had wormed its way into her precious home life.

Sound familiar?

In What's Happening to Home: Balancing Work, Life, And Refuge in the Information Age, due out this month from Sorin Books, Jackson notes that in an era of home offices -- and of workplaces that include gyms and day-care centers -- it's getting harder for most people to distinguish between when they're at home or at work, on the clock or off. The effects of that trend and how the average person can deal with them are the centerpiece of Jackson's book.

The technology that makes working from home possible, as well as the support of employers who grant more flexibility than ever, have been a boon for many employees and increased their options, especially when a child is sick or there's a foot of new snow. But Jackson asks: Once we get totally wired, how easy will it be for most people to disconnect when it's time to relax or hang out with our loved ones? Not very easy, she finds.

Jackson's book isn't a how-to-cope tome, though she offers examples of how she and others manage to balance work life and home life. Mostly, she sets out to show where working life may be headed -- and probe whether Americans really want to live that way. "We risk turning the home into a center of work and communications, and losing it as a refuge," says Jackson, now a New York-based freelancer and contributor to The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

With unemployment as high as it is, it may be tougher these days to tell your boss to take a hike if she tracks you down on the cell while you're coaching Little League or heading a Girl Scouts troop. Yet after September 11, many people have felt the desire to step back and examine their lives. "I think people are very serious about figuring out not so much how they can work less but rather how they can work better and find time for private life," Jackson says.

In chapter two of her book, entitled "Private Lives: Making Time for Home in a Connected World," Jackson discusses why it's important to find quiet at home in a world of chirping cell phones, beeping computers, and bleating pagers.

Here is an edited excerpt of the first half of that chapter. Look for the second part later this week:

Colin Ochel doesn't give clients his home number and wishes he hadn't divulged it at work. He won't read work e-mails on weekends and waited a year before installing a computer at home -- although he's in the computer business. "I really wanted it as my sanctuary," the sandy-haired twenty-six-year-old says of his New York apartment, his first real home as an adult. "I think of it as that."

Ochel has built a private fiefdom behind symbolic walls, because for two years he lived an entirely public life. He sits one day, looking like a young man unaccustomed to wearing a suit, at a plastic conference table in the industrial loft where he and his partner Jeff Linnell built their computer animation business-and lived. For two years, they slept, ate, partied, and showered in the 4,000-square-foot space where they also worked endless hours. They each occupied one of seven freestanding wooden "pods" they'd had built in the huge space. That way, they could cut down on their expenses by both living and working there, and renting out the extra pods to students. It was a stroke of entrepreneurial ingenuity.

Within eighteen months, the experiment had soured. Ochel grew to despise the pods, and within two years, he had moved to the apartment he calls his sanctuary. "I really feel like I do have a kind of home," says Ochel. "I didn't have a home before at all." Linnell retreated to a small attic space-dubbed the cave-within the loft, accessible only by an enormous staircase on wheels, the kind you'd mount to board an airplane out on the tarmac. But he's also looking to find a home. "I want it to be everything that this place is not," says Linnell, a friendly, dark-haired young man with fatigue etched on his face. As I speak to them, the empty pods loom behind us, like barnacles stuck eerily inside a ship's hold. The student-tenants are long gone.

What went wrong? Certainly, it drove Ochel and Linnell crazy that they couldn't escape work. Ochel recalls that if he stepped out for a bite to eat, when he returned he couldn't help but see work. "So, you can't really remove yourself," he says. Furthermore, they had virtually no privacy. Friends joked that the space reminded them of The Real World, the MTV program that documents a group of strangers thrown together for months without escape.

The loft was intimate, too intimate. The walls of the twelve by twelve pods were insulated, but the sounds of conversations, music, and lovemaking wafted from the pods' paper roofs. If Linnell slept in after an all-nighter, he'd have to emerge awkwardly from his pod at mid-morning in front of his toiling staff. The students, who each stayed about six months, were encouraged to absent themselves during the day. Yet on more than one occasion, their private lives would clash with the public face of the business, as Linnell breathlessly described to me. "It's, like, 3 o'clock in the morning and you've got a client sitting there because he's there and he needs this thing now, and you've got six NYU students that just walked into a room and who knows what's going on in there. There's loud music and it's, you know, terribly distracting and a little embarrassing as well."

Even mundane domestic chores-the tiny repetitions that make up the fabric of private life-created tensions. Students got upset when Linnell, immersed in a project and working round the clock, wouldn't take a turn buying toilet paper or washing the breakfast dishes. "This is another arrogant and terrible way to look at things, but the fact of the matter was that I had my primary concern for the company and that's all!" says Linnell, fidgeting restlessly as he remembers those days. "People don't realize, people don't have the same perspective on it as when it's your company and your place and your home. They get confused by it."

And it was confusing. The students, attracted by a relative real estate bargain and perhaps by the exotic nature of the arrangement, were trying to carve a private space, a home, out of the tiny pods. They weren't always concerned with the demands of the public entity, the business that shared the loft with them. Linnell and Ochel, on the other hand, at first willingly sacrificed their private lives for the good of their new company. But that willingness waned, worn down in part by being middlemen between the two halves of their home/workplace.

In setting up this lifestyle, Ochel and Linnell unwittingly gave up the privacy that's long been associated with home. They built a glass house, where they lived under the unblinking eye of their student-roommates, clients, employees, and even each other. In talking to them, I began to wonder whether many other Americans effectively are doing the same thing. Bringing work, clients, meetings, and the connections of technology into our homes imports the public realm into our private fiefdoms. This new life chips away at the private nature of home. It threatens to turn our sanctuaries into glass houses....

....This changing view of private space illuminates why people aren't even aware of how they're eroding the privacy of their own homes. If they don't actively create the walls, as Colin Ochel ultimately did in refusing to give out his home number or answer work e-mails on weekends, then it's assumed that they are accessible. Even if people seek to be available to others, their accessibility snowballs, until they're giving up far more privacy than they'd intended. They think they're leaving the door ajar, but it's blown wide open, as Jan Monti discovered when she set up a consulting and outplacement business in her Seattle home.

Monti had always worked in a corporate setting, so friends immediately warned her that if she went out on her own, she'd be lonely. But she didn't end up feeling isolated. She felt invaded. "My home is my sanctuary," says Monti, a soft-spoken and easygoing woman. "It's where I go to decompress and not worry about how I act and how I look." But with strangers coming into her home, she found that she had to work hard to be more formal and professional. She felt compromised and awkward in the place where she had been used to feeling most relaxed.

Our cultural norms are still largely predicated on the segmentist model of separate realms for home and work. That's one reason why balancing home and work creates such stress for most people. Perhaps as the lines between these realms crumble, we'll eventually grow more accustomed to changing our behavior according to the needs of the moment-not the dictates of the place. We won't find it hard, as Jan Monti did, to put on our professional mask for clients at home, then slip it off at day's end to talk to an intimate.

Yet Jan Monti argues for preserving the sanctity of the home, where we can be a different person than we are while working, and I agree. In at least part of our home, we need places and times that allow us to recoup, restore our dignity, or escape from the gaze of others, especially in an age when the outside world is fast-paced, demanding, and stimulating. In describing her experiences to me one winter's day, Monti begins by talking of "forced intimacy."

At first, I'm alarmed, assuming she's referring to a rude client who sat too close to her on the couch or worse. But gradually, I begin to understand. No matter how well-dressed she was, or how well-scoured her home, she couldn't prevent her clients from seeing her private domain-her bathroom, her kitchen, her Persian cat. They couldn't help but drink in these details of her life and make judgments. "You know you're giving them a lot of extra data to evaluate you as a professional that's totally unrelated to the service they're getting," says Monti. "They're looking at your bathroom, and they're thinking, 'What a crummy choice of wallpaper.' As a human it's hard not to make judgments about people based on their personal surroundings."

To a degree, Jan Monti could control her clients' exposure to her private life by dressing in a suit and closing a door or two in her house. But her clients always saw more than she wanted them to see. She felt unfairly exposed. After eighteen months, she moved her growing business to a rented office in downtown Seattle. Now, she keeps business to a minimum at home, even leaving the room if her husband takes a business call at home. Today, they can follow you all over the world.

Jan Monti was able to turn her home back into a sanctuary because she recognized what was wrong-and because she was her own boss. But what about the many people who don't call the shots in their work lives? As I pondered the issue of privacy at home, I began thinking about secretaries, the women (for they're still mostly women) who have more decision-making power and status than ever before, yet still must answer to one or more bosses. Many are increasingly connected to their employers via e-mail, voice mail, pagers, and cell phones. I asked how this newfound connectivity was affecting their private lives.

Natalie Bee didn't read work e-mails at home six months ago. But Bee, an executive secretary at a South Carolina medical center, now often spends up to an hour a day at home reading job-related e-mail. "Ten years ago, I couldn't ever have seen myself sitting up at midnight and checking my e-mails," she says in a lilting drawl. "Before you go to the mailbox and you get your mail, you go to the computer and get it!" Bee also spends thirty to forty-five minutes at home several times a week checking office voice mails, even while on vacation or when she's sick. She carries a cell phone for both work and pleasure, and wears a beeper several times a month, sometimes during her lunch hour.

She's always been a hard worker, and she's chosen to use most of this technology because she feels that her position as a senior secretary demands it. And, since she leaves work early sometimes in order to go to night school, she believes she owes her employer extra time. But she knows that this constant connectivity to work has changed her life. "Before, when you went home, you enjoyed family time and whatever else," she muses wistfully. Now, her home is no longer a refuge. "I don't even know what it is to relax anymore," she says.

Secretaries from Michigan to Kentucky told similar stories. They often worked as hard at home as they did at the office and spoke of being "followed" by work-a way of life that is becoming increasingly common across occupations. A national study by the Families and Work Institute found that more than forty percent of employees use technology -- cell phones, pagers, e-mail, etc. -- often or very often for work purposes during their time off. Only thirty percent of employees said they never have to be accessible to their jobs when not at work.

Some secretaries are thrilled by their highly connected status. Brenda Hendron, a single mother who works for a high-tech company in suburban Boston, checks e-mail and voice mail from home daily. As she dresses her daughter for school in the morning, she often gets 7 a.m. phone calls from bosses asking for their day's schedule. She explains, "We all have cell phones. Everybody's reachable." Describing herself as "aggressive, energetic, and fast-paced," Hendron says she loves feeling part of the "executive team." Her mother worries that she works too hard. But at the moment, working at home provides Hendron with an exciting alternative to hanging out or watching TV. She says that since she's divorced, she doesn't have the burden of wondering whether she should be talking to her husband, instead of working at night.

Being available around the clock is becoming an unwritten rule for success. The tools of technology are seductive. I recall taking a flight from Washington, D.C., to New York on a cold Friday evening one December. The plane was delayed on the tarmac for a couple of hours, so when the pilot gave the go-ahead for passengers to use their electronic devices, a sea of commuters in Burberry trenchcoats started yammering on cell phones. Phone-less, I sheepishly pulled out my Christmas cards. Cell phones and the like say to others, "You are needed. You're important." Even more, such tools symbolize a willingness to keep up with accelerating workloads. They are badges of honor in today's work world, because being available around the clock is becoming an unwritten rule for success. That's why secretaries who are living up to these expectations feel proud that they are doing a good job, even as they grow uneasy about the cost to their home lives.

Even those who want to set limits on their accessibility find it difficult, if not impossible, to do so in an era when there are few rules to protect private life. Usually, people assume that they can control their accessibility by turning technology off and on. But that's not as easy as it sounds, and it takes constant work. It's a bit like saying, "I won't get in a car accident, because I'm a good driver." What about all the other drivers on the road? Turning off a cell phone or a computer is a temporary fix. People who own technology must scramble to build new barriers, and constantly adjust the degree of access others have to them -- or lose their privacy.

The secretaries I talked to reminded me of the old woman in a children's book, Cats and Robbers. The old woman can't sleep because her house is overrun with squeaking mice, so she opens the windows to let in a multitude of cats. She can't stand the howling cats, so she lets in...and so on. To keep up with their accelerating workloads, the secretaries adopt one technology after another. As a result, they give up more and more of their private space, uneasily or unwittingly. One secretary proudly told me that she's been checking her e-mails daily at home for three years. When I ask her what she did at home before she got the computer, her mask of cheer slips. "Probably got some rest," she says wearily. "You get tired of it at some points." Still, she scorns people who "don't have a home life," who work all day, eat dinner, and start working again in the evening. I gently ask, what's the difference between those people and you? "I'm just checking in, they're doing reports," she says, surprised at my question.

Ironically, many of the secretaries singled out "reports" or any quiet, creative work as enjoyable-not a burden-to bring home. Janet Bell, who works for Hewlett-Packard in San Jose, said she happily brings this kind of work to her remote cottage in the woods-the place she calls her "protected zone." Such work can be done in quiet moments, within the rhythm of home lives. It's work that reflects the best parts of the secretaries' jobs: areas of responsibility and individual input. Since these projects tend to be more private and easily controlled, they are less apt to puncture the sanctuary of the home.

In contrast, the work of accessibility -- e-mails, voice mails, phone calls, beepers -- tends to bring the outside, public world hurtling into the home. The more mobile a worker is, the more he or she turns into a worker on-call, concluded one team of researchers from Santa Clara University. "In today's workplace, we've snuck up on employees and placed them on-call.... It has a glorious, heroic sound to it," observes Beth Sawi, chief administrative officer at Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. "Today you're kind of free, you're kind of not." That's why many of the secretaries I spoke with felt that work "followed" them.

"He's going to search me out wherever I am," secretary Cynthia Lively says of her boss, who e-mails Lively as well as calling her on her cell and home phones. "It's much harder to relax. There's all this instant communications." Lively sometimes finds it hard to sleep after working in the evening, and misses her old habit of curling up with a fun book. "It seems like I'm always on the computer, checking e-mail, or bringing work home," she says.

This way of life changes the perimeters of a worker's private time. "The borders between action and inaction, on- and off-duty and public and private that were available with the 'natural' rhythms of day and night, weekends and holidays, are less evident for more people who are 'on-call' regardless of the time or where they are," writes Gary Marx [a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on privacy]. As I've noted, farmers and craftsmen mostly looked to natural cues -- from the daily path of the sun to cycles of the moon and the seasons -- in mapping out patterns of rest and work in their lives. As work moved away from home, machines and electric light severed labor from these cues, leading to the adoption of weekends and vacations as times of rest. Now that weekends and vacations are less defined yet the sun and seasons hold little sway over our lives, just when in the twenty-first century will we rest?

Excerpted from What's Happening to Home? Balancing Work, Life and Refuge in the Information Age, by Maggie Jackson. Copyright 2002 by Maggie Jackson, SORIN BOOKS, P.O. Box 1006, Notre Dame, Ind., 46556. Used with permission of the publisher.

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