1998 Called: Wants My Life Back

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This past December, I avoided year end predictions. I think it’s a valuable exercise, but honestly a year is too small of a time frame. I am sticking with my deep reflective thoughts from last year –megatrends as they continue to occur at glacial speed.

However, I do want to call one additional megatrend I see beginning to form – the reclamation of personal boundaries.

More and more, I am seeing signs of this – but it is slow. And people are not going to be aggressive about this during tough economic times. But nonetheless, there are numerous indicators of the trend.
VoIP emerged around 2000 – I started selling it around 2002. One of the initial early features of the Mitel system was their Teleworker phone – which effectively put the VPN client in the phone. It was pretty impressive – to take an office phone home and it just connected. All the lights/buttons worked, intercom, vmail indicator– exactly like it was at the office.

When I demonstrated this or spoke to a client about it, I invariably got the same exasperated reaction. Yech! “Why Would I want an office phone at home?” There were few notions more unsettling. it really wasn’t that long ago in time, but attitudes have dramatically changed.

Somewhere around 2007-8 things tilted the other way and people generally embraced the freedom associated teleworking and mobility. Home based workers typically work longer days, and broadband networking has made access to at-office resources relatively seamless. There were numerous other forces at work as well… mobile smartphones changed our lifestyles (remember the term (“Crackberry”), gas prices skyrocketed, social networking changed the way we get information and interact, Wi-Fi ubiquity made it possible and reasonable to get work done at more places out of the office.

Instead of “Why Would I want an office phone at home?” – the question changed to why not?. Why not me, why can’t I work at the beach? We cleared out the spare bedroom, upgraded our home networks, and genuinely improved our productivity.

The walls between work and home came tumbling down. Everyone: managers, consultants, vendors offered to assist with the demolition.

Many transitioned to an always-on lifestyle – email accounts, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, news feeds, cell phones, and more. Email and phone numbers are reasonably easy to separate (work and personal), but many don’t. But services like Skype, Twitter, and Facebook are much harder to separate. We generally have one identity on these sites.
It was all voluntary, but there was a cost. The cost is interruptions while on a true vacation. A quality nights sleep is more endangered when bookended with the office. Our home’s and inhabitants adapted to odd hour conference calls, and new forms of clutter. The sanctuary of the home was lost and there are fewer and fewer places to hide – airplanes, books (iPad), cars, trains, coffee shops, are no longer work-free zones.

But I sense a change in the tides.

I am seeing more an more early signs of a revolt. A redrawing of the line between home and work. The cell phone may be the first battlefield. The enterprise has always had concern about the shared device, but its becoming mutual. Virtual number services or mobile savvy phone systems allow users to give out separate numbers for one device. They also allow call filtering – which calls actually route to the cell phone after hours. Upcoming cell phone virtualization will be greeted with a sigh of relief. California Governor Brown wants to cancel 48,000 mobile phones from the state contract. I suspect these employees will respond with renewed boundaries.
I am also seeing more “survival guides” that advocate clear work hours and making some activities off-limits after certain hours. I find that responses to my middle of the night emails are often in the morning now – the next work day.

I don’t think the era of the home or mobile worker is ending – far from it. I think it’s here to stay and in fact more likely to be forced upon those that have refused. Organization’s at first allowed it – tolerated it – now they are downsizing office space and insisting upon it. But I do see that the individual is starting to reclaim some boundaries – and that’s probably a good thing.

Right now the forbidden sin is texting while driving – employers are putting software clients on mobile staff’s cell phones that prevent such abuses… will they do so with home technologies? Probably not that extreme, but I do expect the social norm to change and in the not-to-distant future midnight emails will result with frowns not smiles from superiors.

Dave Michels