Or, Whatever Happened to Sick Days?

January 25, 2007

In this classic PSGroup perspective, we realize that more than a decade later, our concerns about technology enabling us to work everywhere all the time, rather than anywhere all the time, prove truer than ever.


Like a lot of people, last week, I came down with the flu. Although I was sick, there was work to be done… a lot of work to be done. Because I work from my home office, primarily, I was able to get things done without ever leaving my home, taking frequent breaks for medication and naps. And today, I feel much better.

However, I was reminded of an editorial I wrote many years ago for the Workgroup Computing Report that was a predecessor to our online research service. In that editorial, reprinted here, I bemoaned the fact that you can no longer justify taking time off because it’s just too easy to work no matter what the circumstances.

I went to my “archives” (a set of loose-leaf note-books with hard copies of a dozen years of reports) and found that editorial pretty quickly (even without a search engine). Reading over what I had written almost exactly 13 years ago, I discovered that it still rang true. I received a lot of feedback back then from readers who felt the same way I did. So we are presenting this to you as a Patricia Seybold Group Classic. Let me know what you think.

I have a cold! A bad cold. Furthermore, there’s a snowstorm outside that has no intention of letting up before the city is buried. There’s no way I’m going to the office! And here I sit, in bathrobe and slippers, writing an editorial. Ah, the wonders of remote computing!

In the old days, I would have lain in bed, surrounded by tissues, sipping herbal tea, reading an adventure novel, nodding off, maybe rousing myself to sit in front of a roaring fire. Generally pampering myself.

But now, I am empowered to continue working from my home with virtually the same resources available to me that I would have if I were in the office. I can read my email, I can get my voice mail, I can access network files. I can (and mostly likely will) submit this editorial for review without leaving my living room.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am addicted to my laptop. I don’t remember how I survived on business trips without the ability to work electronically, keeping in touch with home base. Remote computing is a boon to the busy working stuck in a snowstorm (sans the head cold), off on a trip, meeting a deadline on a train, or to one who prefers (or must) work out of a home office. But let me play devil’s advocate here in the era of the workaholic.

Increasingly, I’m wondering, have we lost our ability to relax and take time off from the job? I’m thinking of a commercial that is, I believe, from AT&T, one of those that asks things like, “How would you like to sing your baby to sleep from the road, have a meeting barefoot?” etc. The one I have in mind shows a man at a ski lodge in full ski gear working on a computer and telephone, and the commercial says something like, “Won’t it be great when you can do your job even on a remote mountaintop?”

You know, I don’t think it’s so great. What I want are automated systems that make me so productive when I’m working that, when I’m on the mountaintop, all I need to do is enjoy the scenery.

My question is: Are we working longer and longer hours because we WANT to, because we HAVE to, or because we CAN? The answer is different for each of us. The first two reasons are valid; the last isn’t. (I also have a problem with those people who climb a mountain “because it’s there.”) Just because we have the ability to work 24 hours, seven days a week, doesn’t mean that we should. After all, all work and no play…

Unfortunately, because we can work at all hours in all places, another reason for doing so pops up. We work these hours because we’re EXPECTED to.

The world has become an increasingly competitive place. And we are constantly being measured against others--if not by our employers, then by ourselves. With jobs at a premium, we know we have to prove ourselves more valuable than the next guy, or else, in the next downsize, we might be the one squeezed out. Sending a mail message at 1 a.m. says something to the boss: “Look, I’m dedicated to this job 100 percent plus!”

But let’s think about it. The most interesting, intelligent, and successful people I know have a variety of interests. They have exciting things to do outside their jobs. They maintain a balance between vocation and avocation. They give their all to their jobs, true. But they give with equal vigor to their families, their hobbies, and their causes. They manage to find time for most (if not all) of their activities. And the ability to work from anywhere at any time probably helps them do this. But, remember, they are working from anywhere--not everywhere--and at anytime--not all the time.

So when we tout remote computing and distributed workgroup applications that support occasionally connected users, let’s also demand that they not only give us more flexibility of where or when we work, but that they make us more effective so we can do more work (or, should I say, better work--quality is more important than quantity) in the same amount of time, leaving us free to turn off the modem, close the laptop, and curl up beside the fire.

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