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By Pamela Mendels
APRIL 24, 2000

Unplugging from the Endless Workday

Home-office technology can enslave you if you don't learn to turn off the equipment


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I am self-employed. My home-office paraphernalia -- the fax machine, voice mail, e-mail, Web access, and the computer -- makes this possible. Yet at times, I curse it. All this technology is supposed to set us free, but occasionally, it does the opposite.

Here's a prime example: On a recent evening, my six-year-old, who needed my help with a math problem, tried in vain for several minutes to grab my attention. I was oblivious, listening to work-related voice-mails with a headset on. It took a sharp remark from my husband to snap me back to the home front.

The truth is, having these machines around compels me to work at all hours. If some recent surveys are any indication, I have plenty of company. Consider one finding from a January poll of workers (including the self-employed) conducted by researchers from Rutgers University and the University of Connecticut. It found that 41% switch on the home computer for work-related reasons.

BECAUSE IT'S THERE. A November, 1999, American Management Assn. survey makes the point even more dramatically: 57% of the managers and execs it polled work at home before or after regular office hours. Why? Because the technology is there, says Eric Greenberg, the AMA's director of management studies.

For small-business owners, the temptation is even greater than for wage slaves. "Entrepreneurs are usually worse," says Charles Grantham, a technology consultant and author of The Future of Work. "Their whole life is their business. I'd never tell the entrepreneur not to work so hard. But technology speeds up the whole process." Indeed it does. As Greenberg puts it: "Connectivity means never being able to get away."

That may be good for business. But is this bad for us humans? The occasional distracted mother notwithstanding, constant connectivity is a blessing on balance, asserts Carl E. Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, which did the study mentioned above. That's what the survey seems to say, he says. A higher percentage of the turn-on-the-computer crowd reported being "very satisfied" with their jobs than those who confined computer use to the office alone.

"MORE CONVENIENT." "Instead of feeling overburdened as work falls into the home, they find that information technology...allows them to shift their workday into times more convenient for them," Van Horn says. It's certainly easier than lugging bulging briefcases home. Yet the result may not be efficiency but the end of any physical boundary between home and work. "The tendency is to use the technology because it's there," says Grantham. "I have to do one more e-mail. I'll finish formatting that report."

The danger -- particularly for small-business owners and the self-employed -- is burnout, stress, and a potentially endless workday for those who aren't vigilant about finding new ways to establish those boundaries. After all, we can now literally transport an entire file cabinet into our homes with a few mouse clicks.

Grantham offers a useful tip for quelling the temptation to open just one more e-mail when we should be signing off: Develop a ritual that signals the end of the working day. He cites one work-at-home type who closes his home-office door, exits the front door of his house, and "comes home" through the back door.

A bit literal? Perhaps you might prefer Grantham's own ritual. He programmed his computer to deliver this voice message everyday at 5:30 p.m.: "It's Martini Time." I'd be happy to settle for something less clever. Getting in the habit of unplugging the headset and shutting it away in a drawer at a regular time would be good enough.

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Pamela Mendels is freelance writer based in New York City. She wrote about small business and had a workplace advice column at Newsday, and has written about workplace matters for Business Week, Working Woman, and the Web site iGuide.


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