Lenny Siegel kept disrupting his family vacation this summer. He just couldn't help it.
"My daughter's complaint on our recent trip to Hawaii was that every night I would spend an hour logging in for my (e-mail) messages," says Siegel, director of Career/Pro, a California economics center at San Francisco State. "So from her point of view, I was still at work."Siegel isn't the only one finding that reliance on new communications and computing technologies is helping to obliterate any line between work and personal life.
The spread first of cellular phones, voicemail and pagers, and then of fax and portable and networked computers, has coincided with the "downsizing" epoch of U.S. economic life. Salaried employees have been transformed into one-person consulting firms. More and better output is demanded from the fewer workers remaining in bigger organizations.
For all the well-publicized benefits in time, money and flexibility, the mobility of work is degrading home life, some research indicates.
Constant and instant accessibility - the same qualities that make new technologies indispensable to remote and mobile work - also can make them an invitation to intrusions and workaholism.
"This mobile technology is the ultimate good-news, bad-news joke," says Gil Gordon, a telecommuting consultant from Monmouth Junction, N.J. "The good news is you can work from anywhere. And the bad news is you can work from anywhere."
America now employs tens of millions of road warriors, telecommuters and virtual office workers. They are the digital vanguard of as many as 50 million Americans who spend significant work time away from a business office or factory.
Four of 10 mobile workers carry pagers, two-thirds use cellular phones and almost half work with portable computers, according to a 1995 study by the Business Research Group of Newton, Mass.
The bitter half-joke about people being slaves to beepers now could apply to laptops and mobile phones as well.
"I call them digital leashes, and one can become a virtual dog by virtue of carrying these things," says professor Ken Phillips of New York University's interactive telecommunications program.
Prime candidates for electronic tethers are salespeople, executives, the self-employed and facilities-maintenance employees.
As the average full-time white-collar worker spends more time toiling away from the office, the total work week is increasing, too, says the Yankee Group, a Boston telecommunications research firm.
Competition, ever-shorter project turnaround times, transglobal teams working across handfuls of time zones: Each means hyper-urgent work demands, irrespective of weekends and vacations, let alone mere nights.
"It's kind of a bizarre situation, like time in the household (as in work) has switched from analogue to digital," says Andrea Saveri, a director of the Institute for the Future, in Menlo Park, Calif., which studies effects of technological change. "There are certain things that need to get done, and there's only so much time in the day."
At the University of California, University Professional and Technical Employees Local 9119 wants to negotiate on-call pay for technicians whose sleep time is interrupted, and whose off-time activities are limited by the need to respond to pages concerning system breakdowns.
"If you can't go further away from campus than a couple blocks, you are not substantially relieved on your lunch hour, and you have to be compensated," local President Libby Sayre contends. "They are also effectively prevented from going to Los Angeles (from the Bay Area) or going scuba diving, because it will prevent them from responding to these pages."
Everywhere, in fact, work use of modern technologies "does mean extending the work day and compressing more into less time," says Mark Lowenstein, a Yankee Group vice president.
"Clients say, `We're expecting you to finish that proposal on a plane and when you get to a hotel room, fax it or e-mail it.' There's no such thing as guilt-free business travel."
The effect is exaggerated because "we confuse the speed of transmission with the necessity for speed of action," says consultant Gordon. "There's a saying: `Give a little kid a hammer and everything looks like a nail.' Well, give an executive a pager and everything looks like a crisis."
As Gordon suggests, it can be hard to tell where intrusive business communications end and where a recipient's obsessiveness begins. The availability of round-the-clock assignments, contacts and information can bring workaholism into full flower.
For others as well, the nonstop flood of faxes and e-mail seems to be knocking down the last bricks in a wall that used to separate work and personal life.
"I think it's taking a toll on the work force, because the boundaries and the new norms as far as what is expected have not been set," says Saveri, of the futurism institute. "Managing the boundaries is perceived as a personal responsibility rather than an organizational one."
One method for coping with confusion has made a Bay Area telecommuter legendary.
He dresses for work in the morning, goes out the front door and then circles around into the house through the back door. He works in a home office until his alarm goes off at 5 p.m., when he reverses the ritual.
But others have yet to make their peace, however contrived, with the new work world.
"Living rooms and dining rooms are being turned into temporary offices, with papers and files stacked," Saveri says. "It affects the others in the house and increases tensions.
"Kids come into the (home) office and start talking - how do you tell them `I'm not really here for you'?"
Still, telecommuting and communications technology hold undeniable attractions for many.
"I've probably managed to eliminate stress by staying away from people who can grab you and take you away from what you're trying to focus on," says Nancy Enoksen. She splits her work, fixing billing problems for Pacific Bell, between her home and an office that she shares.
Admirers of the new work communications see most of the worries as scapegoating - as another face of Luddism, the machine-smashing hatred of technology.
Overbearing work demands existed long before beepers, they note. So did obsessiveness. They just used to be more laborious to practice.
Incoming calls on a plain old telephone often were intrusive. You never knew whether the call was from someone you wanted to talk to until it was too late. Now, answering machines, voicemail and caller ID allow you to catch, save and screen calls.
E-mail, conducted "asynchronously" or at different times, is tailor-made for replies at one's convenience - and without all the inefficient chit-chat associated with phones calls.
And cellular phones and pagers can be turned off and the numbers given out with discretion.
"The technology is not the issue," says Dr. Dean Ornish, president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., who studies stress and loves the time-control his electronic gadgets provide.
"It's economics. It's commerce. It's downsizing and re-engineering that's causing people to work harder just to keep pace."
Just turn off the pager and cell phone, say telecom companies and boosters. Explain to potentially intrusive callers - such as bosses, co-workers or clients - what times you're available and what times you're not, and what qualifies as an emergency justifying an exception.
"Every time you respond to a page on Saturday afternoon, you're reinforcing your boss's right to do that," says Gordon, who three years ago started leaving messages to his clients saying he wouldn't be checking anything during vacation.
In the end, it's doubtless true that work life has become more brutal because of economic and not technological trends. Still, it's hard to imagine the spread of "anytime, anyplace work" without the developments in computing and communications.
"The social and economic trends become the impetus for the technology," says NYU's Phillips. "If it weren't for the fact that the field engineer on the street is expected to make 20 visits on the street versus 10 a few years ago, he wouldn't be carrying around all these gizmos."
But there are reasons for hope.
People always struggle with important new machines. They anguished and argued and experimented for years over how and when and where to answer the telephone.
It's the same story with all new forms of communication, says Paul Saffo, also with the Institute for the Future: "First we reach desperately for connectivity and then we wish for filters. We get the device before we get the off switch, and we get the conduit before we get the valve on it."
Optimists think we will master new devices with practice. And the technology should meet us part-way. Filtering and intelligent-agent software, for example, soon will help screen and select faxes and e-mails.
"You're building an electronic moat," Phillips says approvingly, "around your office or your home."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)