The Overworked, Networked Family

How the 21st-century household is using new technology to balance jobs and leisure

Bring up work-and-family balance at a neighbor's barbecue, and the conversation immediately swerves toward tales of rushing out of meetings at breakneck speed to shuttle the kids to soccer practice or struggling to tear ourselves away for a decent vacation. Laments about time pressure are so routine that they have become a common cultural vocabulary. Everybody, it seems, is stressed out about time, and achieving "balance" has become the Holy Grail of middle-class family life.

But maybe balance is the wrong image. Instead, think transformation. Just as businesses are shifting from Industrial Age hierarchies to collaborative networks, so, too, is the American family undergoing a parallel social revolution. Parents and children are no longer on the same schedule -- unlike the way things were a generation ago. With many educated mothers and fathers working longer hours, they are linked to their kids by a web of cell phones and e-mails.

At the same time, kids are taking the initiative to pursue more activities and are using information technologies to nurture their own electronic networks of relationships, from friends at school to cousins in distant cities. "The catalyst for change has been the same in the work hemisphere and family time," says Julie Morgenstern, a time management consultant and founder of Task Masters in New York. "It's technology."

The networked economy is leading to far different standards and expectations of what it means to be a parent and a child. It's not simply enough for the young to get an education. Instead, the goal is to raise children to be creative and adaptable, able both to compete successfully and to collaborate with their Chinese and Indian peers. "We have an economy [whose] functioning depends for the first time on the enhancement of human capability," says Richard Florida, professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Adds Luke Koons, director of information and knowledge management at Intel Corp. (INTC ): "Fourteen-year-olds are truly collaborating and thinking together. There's a lot we can learn to apply to a corporate setting."

So how can the typical overworked white-collar American -- bombarded by e-mails, beset with late-night meetings, and confronted with unexpected business trips -- simultaneously manage at warp speed and cope with the new challenges at home? Gradually, a new body of shared rules-of-thumb is emerging, passed along at playgrounds and in offices. Among them: Transform technology from an oppressor into a liberator. "I love tech," says Margaret M. Foran, senior vice-president and associate general counsel at Pfizer Inc. (PFE ), who uses her BlackBerry and her cell phone to mix work and family time. "I can go to the soccer games at 3 p.m. I can go to the play, the book sale, the science demonstration, and the doctor appointments."

Home Sweet Workplace

Others have mastered the art of interweaving work obligations and home life in a way that was not possible before, answering an e-mail from work one minute and helping with homework the next. And the younger members of the family -- already far more sophisticated at multitasking and networking than their parents -- are getting a chance to see what approaches work and what falls flat. "My daughter, now working, knows how important it is to use her time well," says Carrie J. Hightman, president of sbc Illinois, who is married to a regional administrator for Pitney Bowes Inc. (PBI ) "She has seen me do it. Now she's doing it."

Historically, the organization of the family has mirrored, to some degree, the organization of the workplace. Take the classic middle-class family of the 1950s and '60s, the "Golden Age" economy of strong productivity growth and lush gains in real wages. With a secure corporate job, Dad could afford to work not much more than 40 hours a week, and Mom could stay at home to raise the children. The family of that era did many things together. The classic example is eating dinner every evening at the kitchen table. The kids also tagged along when Mom and Dad visited friends. In essence, a family acted like a single unit, with a hierarchy that mirrored the top-down management of factories or large industrial organizations of the day, such as General Motors Corp. (GM ).

Fast-forward to the 2000s. Today, both Mom and Dad are more likely to have careers. The combined workweek of a husband and wife in their prime working years with children is 68 hours, up from 59 hours in 1979, according to calculations by the Economic Policy Institute. The better educated the couple, the more hours they put in. At the same time, their jobs have changed. The rote work is either being done by computers or is in the process of being outsourced to Asia. Instead, what's left are the more complicated and creative tasks that can't be easily reduced to a set of instructions.

At home, standards for a healthy, emotionally rich family life are a lot higher than they used to be. Schedules during "leisure hours" are crammed with music lessons and play dates for the kids, exercise classes for Mom, and occasional tee times for Dad. Parents are aware that colleges and universities look more favorably on high school students with a demonstrated ability to do many things well, not unlike the skills they will need in the workplace. Says Ann Swidler, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley: "It's the complex management of a life with a wealth of choices."

To achieve these goals, families are learning to turn technology to their advantage. Yes, BlackBerrys, cell phones, e-mail, and other high-tech gear erode traditional boundaries between the office cubicle and the kitchen table, or even the bedroom. But many time-pressed workers now realize that technology creates greater possibilities for busy families to stay in touch and, at the same time, increase family time.

Brian Ruder agrees. A principal at Francisco Partners Management LLC, a Menlo Park (Calif.) venture-capital fund, Ruder, who has a 3-year old son, estimates he works several hours over the weekend while at home. "All my friends and family have seen me punching away on my BlackBerry and talking on my cell phone, so the general perception of how much time I am working has gone up even more than the amount of time I am working," muses Ruder. Yet he doesn't yearn for "the good old days" when he went to the office on Saturdays and Sundays. "Because of technology, I probably spend more time working on the weekend now, but it's easier on me because I can work at home, then take a run, and go out to brunch with friends," he says.

Other parents follow a different but equally successful strategy for using technology. While raising her kids, now in college, Nell Minow worked three days a week out of her home office in suburban Washington. Her job: editor and co-founder, with Robert Monks, of the Corporate Library, a corporate governance evaluation firm based in Portland, Me. "That was a dream way to work," says Minow. "E-mail enables me to be accessible, so I don't have to live in Portland at the Corporate Library's headquarters." Today, Minow is also Yahoo! Inc.'s (YHOO ) "Movie Mom," reviewing four to five films a week.

But just as excessive e-mails and conference calls fill up time on the job, there's a temptation to use the technology to cram too much in at home as well. "You have to control the technology and make it work for you, not work you," says Minow. "If I tell myself: 'I'm not going to check my e-mail for two days,' I stick with it."

Indeed, in a world where creativity and innovation are so highly prized, it's more important than ever to create space to think. Janet Dolan is CEO of Tennant Co. (TNC ), a Golden Valley (Minn.) multinational specializing in cleaning and maintenance products, with $500 million in annual revenue. She has run the company, raised two children, maintained a marriage, volunteered in the community, and served on several boards. For her, long-distance running is her solution for gaining the time she needs to think creatively about work and family issues. "People need to be able to think," she says. "We need to carve out time rather than fill in time."

Other busy people have found that it's important to maintain fairly strict boundaries between work and home. Maria Saldana is head of U.S. investment banking for Popular Securities in Chicago, a subsidiary of the nation's largest Hispanic financial institution, Banco Popular of North America Inc. She's also the mother of four children, ages 10 to 20, and president of the Board of Commissioners for Chicago Park District, an organization that manages the city's 7,300 acres of parkland, lakefront property, football stadiums, museums, and an aquarium. Still, she has learned that it pays to compartmentalize her time. "When I'm home, I'm home," says Saldana. "Otherwise, you'll drive yourself crazy."

Trial and Error

Setting priorities is critical. One thing people can do, says consultant Morgenstern, is to not answer their e-mail for the first hour they're at work. Instead, devote that time to the most important tasks that require creativity and concentration. That's advice that Alan Brown, chief marketing officer at Nuveen Investments and the father of three school-age children, is following. When he came to Nuveen four years ago, he was determined to spend more time with his kids and family. "In the past, I've felt that at times there's more emphasis on activity instead of meaningful results," he says. Now, "I'm spending time at work on things that are important rather than trying to attend to everything."

What's the equivalent at home? Pay attention to what really matters -- your kids and spouse -- when you get back from work. Says Morgenstern: "Household chores are secondary."

It's important to note that there's no one-size-fits-all solution for the problem of reconciling long hours at work with a healthy family life. What's more, individuals can accomplish only so much acting on their own. Schools and other major community institutions still behave as though the 40-hour workweek were the rule rather than the exception. And corporations are still loading new responsibilities and commitments onto managers and professionals, without taking away any of the old ones.

Nevertheless, what's fascinating about the current focus on managing work and family time is that it's rooted in an abundance of possibilities. Through trial and error, with many stumbles along the way, the networked family is starting to figure out how to take advantage of the many opportunities available today. And that's progress.

By Christopher Farrell with Ann Therese Palmer in Chicago

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