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26 June 2008

Taking the office with you

Gadgets designed to improve working life are making it inescapable

By Becky Hogge

Listening to the usual sombre procession of headlines on the radio one morning recently – top-secret documents left on train, man killed in argument at supermarket checkout – it came to me. Are we all, as a nation, simply working too hard? Not a surprising thought for a midweek morning at the beginning of a rainy spell in June, I grant you. But if we are, how much is new technology to blame?

Anyone with a BlackBerry knows the answer to that question. These days, it’s difficult not to pity the poor sod whose email message ends “Sent from my BlackBerry”. Surely they shudder to remember the glowing pride with which they accepted those golden leashes as a sign of prestige back at the turn of the century? Anyone wishing to learn from history might consider keeping the new and frighteningly cheap 3G dongles – giving you internet anywhere, direct to your laptop – dangling on the shelf.

Technology allows us to work from anywhere, which means that a lot of us end up working from everywhere. It’s a new version of Parkinson’s Law: work expands to fill the space available. The closer new technology brings you to the office, the more you’ll feel like you’re there. No wonder that navy officer left his MoD laptop full of the names and addresses of 600,000 military hopefuls in his car instead of taking it into the house. He was just trying to get away from work.

Geeks, as ever, are the trailblazers here. Like doctors on call, every systems administrator worth his salt knows the heavy weight of a work pager in his pocket. And then there is the rapacious career blogger, who looks naked without a laptop in front of him. If he gave you his full attention, instead of tapping away at the keyboard while you’re trying to have a meeting, he might very well turn you to stone.

None of this is good. But there is another way. The key is in setting boundaries. If you use your laptop for work and pleasure, give yourself two accounts. One can hold all the documents and web settings you require for your work life, storing confidential and sensitive material in encrypted files created using free products such as TrueCrypt. The other can be used for pleasure – Facebook, iPlayer, or whatever else helps you kick back online. And for those truly addicted to the web, remember that pleasure can be pursued offline, too.

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If your work and personal emails go to two separate addresses, associate them with the appropriate account. During the work day, don’t log into email constantly, but only at scheduled times. Let those who work closest to you know that they need to call you on the phone if they want to communicate urgently.

Telecommuting should be a cure for society’s ills, not an aggravating factor. Combating presenteeism and the hero culture of the British workplace is half the battle – if won, we will find that technology works for us, and not the other way around.