Technology and economic necessity are making it impossible for people to maintain neatly compartmentalised lives. Employers love that their salaried workers expect to take their work home. Cellphones, BlackBerry handhelds, and notebook computers make commute and travel time productive.
More and more workers never completely "punch out." Employers are enjoying an unprecedented productivity boom, but some are rewarding their best workers with disdain in the form of restrictive technology policies.
As work intrudes more on people's personal lives, their personal lives inevitably leak into their workdays. Kids and houses and bank accounts and sick relatives still demand attention. And yes, Christmas shopping has to be done. If business delights in the use of personal time for the company's benefit, it has to permit some balance.
The economy has suspended the five-day, 40-hour workweek. You hear very little whining these days about how hard anyone's working because everybody is pulling more than their accustomed share. So why are we hearing whining from employers about how their superproductive people are using company computers? Except for extreme cases that should be dealt with quickly, non-work activity isn't harming productivity. It's helping your overworked staff stay sane.
I don't suggest that firewalls and content filters should be switched off. In some companies or departments, freedom and flexibility must be perks earned over time. But the recession forced a lot of workers who prefer strict separation between their work and personal lives to give up their boundaries. The way to thank the person who shoulders double or triple her usual burden is not to ask questions about how she gets it done. If you give her grief about checking her Yahoo mail from work, she'll doubtless feel like a dupe the next time she pulls an all-nighter for the company.
Company IT departments have staffing shortages and budget squeezes of their own. Management concerns about wasted bandwidth and lost productivity are overblown and IT should wave them off until better times.
I'm a market pragmatist, so I know that as long as one person does the work of three and answers business calls at 8 o'clock on a Saturday night, that person's employer will keep squeezing. Management should get all the value it can from workers. Companies should protect their assets from damage and overt misuse.
But if there was ever a time to overlook the petty stuff, like workers shopping for Christmas presents online or sending instant messages to their spouses they haven't seen in days, this is it. People are working efficiently, in most cases so efficiently that they have no personal lives.
When the economy turns around -- and it will -- it's what companies gave back to their most productive employees that will determine whether they stick around.
Yager is the technical director of the Infoworld Test Centre.