Twenty minutes after Randy Block settled into the theater seat for a much-awaited night out, his mobile phone vibrated and he had to leave the play.
“It’s my business,” said the president of Enhanced HomeCare, a home health care company for the elderly.
“It’s my life.”
And there lies the blur between work and private life. In the last decade, the difference for many workers has become nearly invisible.
Whether an on-call employee, a workaholic, or a self-employed person who has no one else to turn to, many work lives are now nearly 24/7. There’s no clocking in and out, no overtime for “extra” hours worked.
Pushed by technology and job evolution in the service economy, fewer American workers know what “quittin’ time” is.
“We’ve come to expect after-hours responses as part of the job,” said Jim Holland, a partner with the Fisher & Phillips law firm in Kansas City. “Twenty years ago, clients expected to wait three days to get an answer. Now, if they wait three minutes, they can be upset.”
The always-on workforce — carrying smartphones and digital notebooks — has given up much expectation of private time and even personal privacy. Some employees work with GPS devices in their phones or vehicles that can monitor their whereabouts no matter the time of day. Still other workers, as a condition of employment, are asked to share passwords to their personal social media accounts.
Holland muses that “there’s not a lot of recourse to fight the 24/7 world, other than to say, ‘I don’t want this job,’ ” which is an unrealistic response for many workers who need the paycheck.
Particularly for salaried workers who aren’t covered by overtime regulations, he notes, “As a legal issue, there’s not a whole lot that can be done with the blur between professional and personal life.”
The work anywhere, anytime life presents more than a time-management or legal issue. Some people also are raising serious concerns about the erosion of privacy as work time has encroached into what once was considered private time.
“Technology has blurred them beyond recognition,” wrote Tony Schwartz, president of the Energy Project, an entity that can be found on Facebook. “Wherever we go, our work follows us on our digital devices, ever insistent and intrusive.”
What many workers have lost, Schwartz said, “are stopping points, finish lines, and boundaries.”
The electronic tether
Workplace consultants acknowledge that for both employers and employees there are consequences from never truly getting away from work, from being electronically shackled to the job.
The good results include faster customer responses, efficiency or productivity gains (at least temporarily), and, sometimes, individual flexibility for workers to juggle personal needs with job responsibilities instead of adhering to a strictly timed shift.
But the negative outcomes are drawing increased awareness of late.
“If you’re almost always in touch, you’re never ‘off,’ ” said Peter Ronza, president of Pontifex Consulting Group, which works on human resource issues. “Even if you check your email and decide not to do anything about it, you’re aware of it, and that has a huge psychological or physical impact.
“People need ways to disconnect.”
At the University of Texas-San Antonio, management professor Dianna Stone specializes in studying the burgeoning blending of private life and work life.
“Being tethered electronically creates a lot of stress, an enormous overload,” Stone said. “Organizations could set restrictions, but most haven’t. And people are afraid they’d lose their jobs or someone else would get ahead of them if they’re not always on.”
Surprisingly, Lewis Maltby, executive director of the National Workrights Institute, said he doesn’t hear a crescendo of workers’ complaints.
Even GPS capability in cellphones and company vehicles — allowing employers to track an employee’s every move if wanted — hasn’t caused a privacy rebellion.
“People are gradually getting used to it,” Maltby said.
But, he added: “Just because you’ve accepted something doesn’t mean it isn’t eating at you. It’s just one more stress in the life of people who already have too much stress.”
That’s partly why many employers are loosening rules they originally put in place to restrict personal Web activity during work.
For example, Flynn, the ePolicy head, said employers increasingly recognize that employees want to do their online banking, communicate with their kids’ teachers, read news feeds, and do other items of personal business while at their desks.
“It’s a good idea to free up some URL blocks,” Flynn suggested. “Workplaces need electronic policies, and workers need to know what they are, but we don’t recommend that employers ban all personal use of company technology. Smartphones particularly have made that just about impossible. Work and personal business are intertwined.”
Some workers are just saying no when the intertwining violates their sense of privacy. Recent publicity has highlighted a few employers who asked job applicants to offer up their private Facebook passwords and were refused.
Access to someone’s private account is a still-rare request, but for some jobs with safety or political sensitivities, the search for digital dirt is a natural extension of the applicant screening process. Job screeners for sensitive law enforcement or political jobs once knocked on neighbors’ doors to ask questions. Now they look for information in online chat rooms and social media.
Good “due diligence” can protect employers against dangerous hiring mistakes.
Still, Daniel Prywes, an employment law attorney at Bryan Cave in Washington, counsels employers that it’s best not to probe too deeply into employees’ social media accounts or other online presence “unless you’re willing to be portrayed negatively in the court of public opinion.”
But people also are reminded that the very nature of the Web should shatter any notion or privacy.
“Bear in mind, your online posts, your YouTube videos, your tweets, are public,” said Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute. “Anyone can look at them, including your boss. Acknowledge the reality.”
For many workers the reality is that they’re devoting much of their waking hours to work. If they’re already bristling at a lack of “me” time, any further raid on their personal time or space is likely to be upsetting.
Even Randy Block, who loves what he does for a living, knows that the cellphone buzzing about work doesn’t always come during “work” time.