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Without Boundaries

An article in The New York Times this weekend (Taking Your Feelings to Work, June 11, 2011 – subscription necessary – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/12/jobs/12pre.html?ref=business) reminded me of how much the workplace has changed since I graduated from college in 1993.

“Work was supposed to be a hyperrational realm of logic, filled with timetables, organizational charts and returns on investment,” the writer says. “It was only outside of work that emotions — so dangerously ill-defined and unpredictable — were supposed to emerge.”

Our culture has blurred those boundaries, the article suggests. If we don’t handle a work call or two on our own time, it’s likely the boss will find someone who will. Child caregivers often need to consult a parent during the day, while the parent is at work.

That dynamic had not occurred to me back in 1998, while covering the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

That year, I saw demos of some of the first RIM devices to hit the market – slightly larger than the current handsets, touted as allowing users to work from the comfort of a beach chair rather than the confines of an office.

I fell in love. After seven years of work in organizations that could never – would never – be able to support such a notion, the thought intrigued me … untethered, flexible, always on. As a career-obsessed, young, ambitious professional, this made total sense to me.

What I didn’t think about was the impact it would have on relationships. In as much as the work world has become immediate and pervasive, so too, has the personal one. One friend texts another friend, then keeps the phone in hand awaiting a response – and it’s not just teens, as is commonly discussed. In some relationships, we condition each other to reply instantly, even about the simplest things that, without cell phones or text messages, we’d never bother to address.

I’ve certainly done it.

I have come to realize just how much that is to expect from someone. When it comes to personal relationships (barring an emergency) there are very few instances where responding within one hour vs. responding within one minute makes that big of a difference.

I now find myself blocking out regular time to “unplug” from the on-demand world. Others have their own version of this but for me it’s four or five hours sans Blackberry on a random evening or weekend day at least twice a week. (I’ve also stopped checking it while I’m on my daily hikes, though I do carry it as a safety precaution.)

I have one device for work and personal use; everything flows together. What this means is I will see work-related e-mails in the evenings, or on the weekend days that I check. The truth is even when we’re off, we’re on in this world.

Powering that down every so often is not such a bad thing.

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