Man walks into a column, no.38: Work

Until very recently, I was passionately purist about keeping my working life and my private life as far apart as humanly possible. This is not to say that there were no overlaps, and I have made some firm and lasting friendships through work. But I took steps to ensure that I got to choose when and where I would let the two worlds overlap, rather than work infringing unbeckoned into my home time. I’ve blogged before about the vital importance of a feeling of autonomy, and that was certainly true in this case.

Practically, this meant keeping lines of communication separate: I had a PDA for work (I wince at using such an outmoded term as ‘PDA’, yet you could hardly call it a ‘smartphone’, more of which later) and an iPhone for family and friends, allowing me to leave the PDA in the office when I went home in the evening, at weekends and on holiday. One set of emails, appointments, text and telephone exchanges for work, another for everything else. I often extolled the virtues of such carefully drawn lines of distinction, because that’s the kind of guy I am.

I maintained this divide for the simple reason that when I first started work after graduation, eight years ago, I took my employers up on their offer of a free mobile, but quickly found the experience of being constantly – if usually only theoretically – ‘on call’ quite stressful. I found it really hard to switch off from work when away from the office. And so for many years having a dividing wall was an article of faith.

In the last couple of weeks this carefully erected wall has crumbled. I have my iPhone and that’s it. My previously ‘personal’ mobile number is on my email signature at work and everything. I thought this would be a discombobulating shift, but in actual fact it’s not felt unsettling at all. On reflection, it’s simply the final stage in a process that’s been in train for many months.

Of the causes of this change in lifestyle, the most fundamental is, of course, the fact that I’ve blogged and tweeted over the past year or so, and hadn’t previously. Unless you are very dedicated to anonymity (perversely so, one might say, given the nature of the beast), using social media makes it impossible to keep work and play as separate because many of the people you want to have conversations with are also colleagues and clients.

So the ‘wall’ between the two worlds was already starting to look like more of a fence, full of holes. A series of more prosaic changes added a sense of urgency: first and foremost a new job with ‘communications’ in the title which, when combined with a woefully inoperable PDA that I often forgot to take out of my locker at work, made me think I might need to be a bit more generally communicable than I was before. On a really basic level, having two sets of everything – calendars in particular – could often be a pain in the bum.

Having made the switch, I was interested to read this piece by social media researcher and writer Brian Solis (who may or may not be a complete charlatan: his profile pic doesn’t bode well, but I still thought the post was interesting). Privacy as we once knew it, he says, is over: an inevitable effect of the value of social media. We expend emotion, too: ‘[we] invest a bit of ourselves in each new connection and form of expression we publish. We say a bit about who we are in all we create and share.’ The cost of this constant investment of energy can be fatigue, Brian argues, a state that can be ‘difficult to recognise and far more exacting to overcome’.

This does feel like a bit of a risk to me, but I hope that by sticking to one simple rule I can mitigate it. My rule is that whenever there’s a choice between spending time with my iPhone and having a real conversation with a living breathing human being, I’ll choose the latter. I do not wish to become one of those networking gurus who regularly tweets during meetings, in the pub with friends or – perish the thought! – in the company of a loved one. Prioritise people. And try to resist the urge to combine social networking with beer.


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