Essays on Technology and Culture

Keeping It Separated

One of the things most bemoaned as we become always-on and always connected is that the line between work and private life are being blurred into non-existence. The nine-to-five job’s been dead for years, and if you’re working for a company that offers “flex time” or is “results driven” with no set hours, it only compounds the problem. People are quick to point fingers. Some point to the enabling influence of technology: the smartphone, high-speed Internet, e-mail. Others point to companies that leverage those technologies to impose themselves on workers without paying them more. These are not mutually exclusive, and these are not the only answer.

As someone who works in the high-pressure world of a technology startup, and in a social media community role—the sort that’s “always on”—I only went in with the plan that I would establish hard boundaries to keep my personal life and personal work separated from my job. I don’t know if I’ve fully succeeded, but I do believe I’m in a better position than I would be had I allowed myself to be at the beck and call of the job from the start. That separation began on day one, when I got setup with my work computer.

I insisted outright on having a separate machine at work, and fortunately there was an iMac that a former employee had bee using. By not bringing my primary machine, a laptop, to work every day (or indeed, ever), I immediately established one strong bulwark between “work” work and personal work. I know that when I travel to the office and sit down at my desk in front of the vast expanse of a 27" iMac, I am at work. Nowhere was this reinforced more then after Hurricane Sandy here in New York, when I was the only person who actually came to the office after the subways started running. For two days, everyone else worked from home, while I held down the fort in person. While I’ve occasionally used my home machine for work when I couldn’t otherwise get into the office, it’s an exception and never a rule.

The second hard barrier is email and other communication. As I work for a small company, we typically don’t use the phone for much, except in emergencies, so I know that if I get a call from one of the bosses and I’m not in, it’s legitimately urgent. Instead, a large amount of our communication occurs through email and chat. When I’m away from work, I log out of our intra-office chat application, on both my work machine, and my phone, and so it stays until the next morning. If someone tries to get ahold of me in the chat, I get an email notification when I check my work email, which I typically do with Mailbox.

Mailbox is, without a doubt, the best thing to happen to email. If I get a work-related message, and I’m off my self-defined clock, I can defer it until tomorrow morning with just a swipe and a tap. I don’t even have to think about it. I’ve even given thought to actually taking the work email off of my phone entirely, but it’s come in handy to fire off quick status updates and share work-related intelligence I get from my off-time reading. Of course, it almost goes without saying that I’ve turned off all push notifications and automatic email checking. [1] If it’s that urgent, a phone call or text message will do.

For various online services, there is some overlap. I keep our Google Apps calendar subscribed on my iOS devices and laptop, so I can keep track of important events. I keep a Work notebook in my Evernote, and my OmniFocus database contains an @Office context, and a folder of work-specific projects and actions. As I mentioned above, I keep the chat application we use in the office on my iPhone—on the first screen, no less—and I also installed an app so I can check in to our bug and task tracking app. The Google Drive app on my iPad is tied explicitly with my work’s Google Apps account, and I have HootSuite installed for work-related social network stuff. It’s the only social stream app I keep on my iPad.

This is all fine, because I know where the lines are. Things are clearly delineated. In fact, the second home screen on my iPad is set aside just for work-related apps, all eight of them—and that’s stretching the term “work-related”. I know the barriers I’ve set up between my work life and my personal life, and my co-workers know them too. Only I know the openings (for now), and I suspect it will stay that way. The porousness of certain barriers will never be fully closed, I expect, but as long as our work lives are going to defy being defined by a clock, we will find ways to deal with that porousness on our own terms.

  1. I am, however, one of those compulsive email checkers, and I’ve been know during downtime to pull and refresh in Mailbox once every minute or so. It’s a hard habit to break.  ↩