A friend of mine once woke me up a little to the lack of inevitability of labor history when he asked me in a McDonald’s one day, "Exactly when and how did the fast-food chains talk us into the idea that they would stop employing people to bus tables, and give the job to us."
I think of that every time I scrape my trash into the bin or see the dupes using a self-checkout line at the grocery store. And I thought about it when I read Shel Holtz’s little-noticed blog post last week criticizing some ABC News employees who demanded and received compensation for the time they spend working on their smartphones when they’re not at work.
"Leave it to some workers who want to return to the days of the clear line between work and leisure," Holtz sneers. Only factory workers work from nine-to-five anymore, he said. For the rest of us, "Just as the news cycle has gone 24 hours, so has the work cycle."
Holtz’s problem with the ABC News employees, who he calls "greedy" and "clueless," is that they undercut his pet argument for why companies should allow employees free access to the Internet while they’re at work: If employees have to work at home, you have to let them play at work.
"If a company pays you for the time you spend doing work away from the
office, then they have every right to expect you will devote every
minute in the office to work," Holtz says.
(That notion is tidier than it is true. There was office chit-chat and there were personal calls in the days when bosses apologized, "I’m sorry to call you at home.")
I know Shel pretty well. Everybody at IABC knows his musical tastes and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear that he bent some stranger’s ear at a rock ‘n roll show or at Jazz Fest about the powers of communication, man. Shel’s a pretty self-actualized guy who has made a rich life for himself.
But as I pointed out in a comment on Holtz’s blog, I know a lot of other people "for whom work and life isnât such an
integrated festival-of-intellect-friendship-and-soul as it is for you. Some people really do work to live, and living means being frigginâ
home with the family, in the forest with their friends, on their
[sailboat] without the possibility of [someone] sending them an attachment for
I added that "my life is more like yours than like theirs, but I donât begrudge
them their efforts to achieve it, and I donât think you should either."
But in the days that Holtz’s blog post has stuck in my craw, what I’ve been stewing about is this assumption that somehow God has decided to create a 24-hour news cycle, and our lives naturally, inevitably have to be transformed into endless exercises in round-the-clock vigilance and middle-of-the-night e-mail checking.
This is not necessary, and it’s not inevitable. To the extent that it is becoming the American way of life, it’s because you and I are caving in to: corporations who want to do business in a global economy and so want us to work three shifts for the price of one … workaholic bosses with no lives outside work and a deep suspicion of anybody who does … and our own insecure fear that our talent isn’t what we we’re being paid forâour willingness to take our PDA on vacation is.
The last thing we need is a humanist like Shel Holtz calling us clueless for wanting a little real, uninterrupted peace and quiet, and greedy for demanding some compensation for working at home.
I am not sure where to start. Okay, with the ABC News employees, perhaps they are greedy. I don’t know. I do know that at one time, when one became an “exempt” employee, one worked to get the job done regardless of the hours. One received an annual salary and benefits. That was the perk of being an “exempt” employee versus a “non-exempt” employee. Nowadays, I don’t know which is the better choice.
I also know that the Blackberries, the iPhones and other PDAs have “off” switches. So, is it then a personal choice to not turn off from work?
I don’t think I am clueless for turning “off” on the weekends and evenings. If a deadline is looming, I may wander over to the Blackberry and check on the project status. But it’s a brief 15 seconds. Up to one minute if I respond (I don’t have the fastest thumbs). Plus, my boss and team are two hours behind me. So, by 7 p.m. my time, I am definitely in the clear. With one hour travel time, hey, I’m good.
I love checking in with friends and certain blogs over the weekend, but I’ve realized that I like the downtime and of course, my family is the most important thing in my life. My daughter is almost three. Where did my baby go? See? Times goes by too fast to obsess over work.
David Murray says
“deadline is looming” … “wander over to the Blackberry” … “a brief 15 seconds” … “I am definitely in the clear.”
This doesn’t sound like the narrative of someone who is fully and totally ensconced in the bosom of her family. It sounds like somebody who is on the lamb.
I think you don’t know where to begin because you don’t know quite what to think about the situation.
Hey, me neither! I just don’t want to be dismissive of people who DO know what they think about playing cat-and-mouse with their employers even after hours.
Hmmm…I don’t know. I mean, younger employees want to stay connected because they want to prove themselves and older ones because they have always worked that way. At least that is what one “old-timer” in my company told me.
David Murray says
Yes, I recognize, and said in my post, that much of this pressure to stay connected comes from within.
But I’m haunted by reflections like this one, by Kent State PR professor Bill Sledzik:
“I hate golf, and almost never watch it. But I set aside my chores Monday afternoon to catch the last three holes of the playoff. I did it mostly to root for another old guy from Western Pa., Rocco Mediate. I watched, and I wondered: Do you think Rocco is a multitasker with a Blackberry? Do you suppose his computer pings him each time an email arrives? Does Tiger Twitter between holes? And how often does he check his Facebook page?
“Maybe it’s the unfocused nature of my own life that prompts me to pose these questions. I don’t worship jocks, but I do admire the mental discipline of folks like Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate. When was the last time you set aside everything for 4 or 5 hours to concentrate on doing one thing exceptionally well?”
Seen in this way, that 15 seconds on your Blackberry isn’t just 15 seconds–it’s a break in your concentration, it’s an interruption of a thought, it’s a lost opportunity to build anything–a relationship, a community, an idea–that requires focus.
Fair enough… 🙂 But does Tiger even need a Facebook page? 😉
You’re absolutely right David. We don’t have to cave, so why do you care what Shel says?
I did wonder though in reading your post, if perhaps some of the angst I read in (or maybe just into?) your comment isn’t because you’d LIKE to have it both ways?
I mean, most of us, being communicators, are pretty social people, and we love to know what’s going on in the groups we belong to, so checking email at odd times is a symptom of that.
But ultimately, all it takes is one little thumb flick to move the power button to “off” and to heck with Shel! (No offense meant to Shel personally, you understand).
That does NOT, however, mean that the rest of the world necessarily agrees to do the same, so we will potentially miss out on something or other while we’re offline. We just need to be comfortable with the choices we make and how we spend our time.
And to your comment: “that 15 seconds on your Blackberry isn’t just 15 seconds–it’s a break in your concentration, it’s an interruption of a thought, it’s a lost opportunity to build anything–a relationship, a community, an idea–that requires focus.” isn’t ANY interruption the same thing?
Life is FULL of insterruptions, always has been, always will be. Is it a WORSE interruption if it’s work-related than if it’s the neighbour asking to borrow the lawn-mower, or your child asking you to help them with their homework?
David Murray says
Kristen, I don’t think checking e-mail at odd times is a symptom of wanting to know what’s going on in any groups. I think it’s a symptom of modern loneliness and a Pavlovian feeling: Hey, if I click on “SEND and RECEIVE” I might get some evidence, in the form of a bit of correspondence, that I DO exist, after all!
As for life being full of interruptions: I somehow see a my neighbor interrupting my reading to my child by asking for gas for the lawnmower as more organic, better for both me and my child, then getting a “ping” on my Blackberry from some fucktard who happens to be working at the office on Sunday night and needs the password to the QuikCache database.
I object to Shel’s point of view because it reinforces an if-you-don’t-answer-your-e-mail-on-Saturday-
that our bosses would like us to share.
George Carlin comes in handy here:
“They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. You know what they want? Obedient workers–people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.”
I’m not saying we don’t have control, or that we can’t turn our stupid Blackberries off. I’m saying we DO have control, and we SHOULD turn the stupid things off and we SHOULDN’T acquiesce to “the 24-hour work cycle.”
Jane Greer says
My best, deepest, most insightful work and my best, deepest, most insight-filled moments with friends and family (and books) are when I’m focusing on doing the work or enjoying the people (or books) face-to-face. Everything that happens in between is secondary.
This is just my humble opinion, but I think some people make the in-between, secondary stuff more important than the deep, focused work or reading or human relationships. I wouldn’t venture to guess WHY, but I feel sorry for them because I can live in my world AND in theirs–I can multitask and spend a whole morning answering emails with the best of ’em–but they don’t appear able to visit my world. My world requires stretches of quiet solitude and unstructured, unclocked time, states that seem to make such people very uncomfortable.
David Murray says
“stretches of quiet solitude and unstructured, unclocked time”
These are essential to my idea of human life. Actually, it doesn’t have to be quiet, doesn’t have to be solitude. But it does have to be unstructured and unclocked.
If you don’t have these, then what is it, exactly, that you tell stories about? When do you get your good ideas? When do you manage to put all the rest into some context that might survive the day’s flotsam and jetsam? When do you wonder what you’ll think, on your death bed, of what you made of your life?
To paraphrase the comedian Steven Wright: Sure, I’ll be available 24 hours. But not in a row!
The post stuck in my craw, too, partly because I don’t live like this, nor do most people I know. Most of us are pragmatic enough to know that little of what we do is of any real or lasting importance, and that what is important to me is my time to do what I wish to do — whether it’s hanging out at the local cafe or writing at the lakefront.
(P.S. I don’t have a BlackBerry.)