When work is so homelike, there's no need to be at home

August 01, 2006|By DIANE CAMERON

We are at the halfway point of summer. About now we begin to note how fast it's going. Some folks like to take their vacation at the end of August, but most of us can't wait that long for a little time away.

But who, these days, is really away from work when they are "away"? Oh, we laugh at the guy with the cell phone in the woods and the woman tap-tapping on a laptop at the beach. Most of us don't go that far, but we do check our e-mail, or leave our hotel phone number "just in case."

Technology, we've learned to say, has revolutionized the way we work. Certainly it has, but just as Henry Ford was no fool, the tech magnates aren't either. Ford paid his workers good salaries so they could become good consumers and further his agenda. Now, companies appearing generous and enlightened have begun to make the workplace feel like home and have even done away with prescribed amounts of time off. But guess who benefits.

Many workplaces have become so casual that we wear shorts, have Internet access to shop and play and even bring the dog to work. But each year we work more, not less.

As our boomer contingent grows closer to old age, we might begin to count the costs of all this work. Would our lives be different if we actually took all of our vacation each year? Went away for a month? Didn't call the office? And why don't we?

Well, we either blame ourselves ("I'm just so work-addicted") or we blame the people at work ("I can't leave; do you know what I'd come back to?").

But what if it's not that we need therapy for our work "issues" - what if the invisible hand of the market, as economists call it, is really a manipulative hand?

Am I saying that business is trying to make us think that work is fun by giving us free cappuccino and bring-your-dog-to-work day? Yes. But most of us don't think we could be that easily influenced. The only reason we write e-mail from the lake and check voice mail at the hotel, we say, is that we're just trying to stay connected. But what we are continuing to stay connected to is work.

Even as we bring more of what seems personal into the workplace, and even though we wear khakis and jeans, we're not at home. What we bring is the illusion of home, so we won't notice that we're chopping off more that is personal and private every day.

With each new "personalization" policy, the workplace never loses a minute of our total waking - or working - time.

Can we be that controlled? What short memories we have. We know about Rosie the Riveter and the wartime campaign to make women believe that they would feel fulfilled by going into factories at the start of World War II - and that there was another campaign as the war wrapped up to get those jobs back for men.

The women felt surprisingly dissatisfied with work, and newly "unfulfilled" as they began to think about having more babies and the importance of homemaking. Those women believed they were making deeply personal choices when they went home to bake cakes and make one more baby.

And here we are, telling ourselves that we like "staying connected," bragging about our casual offices and how we've traded power suits for sweat suits. Could it be that we are experiencing propaganda, just as powerful, to make us think that we like working all the time?

Yeah, we're lucky all right. No more ties and no more panty hose. "This is freedom," we say to each other across the office. But the day may come when we'll long for the gray flannel suit and reminisce about a time when you could tell if you were at work or home by looking at your clothes.

When the ties (to work) came off, at least you knew your life was your own.

Diane Cameron lives in Valatie, N.Y. Her e-mail is oklota@localnet.com.

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