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When work becomes life

Technology is supposed to help make both work and life easier - but is it simply blurring the lines between the two?

Mixing business and pleasure -- is it really possible?

Perhaps the better question is whether or not your work life and personal life should be fused at all.

In more than a decade of writing columns, no single opinion generated the sort of emotional response from readers as one I wrote in the mid-1990's in which I complained about how, in addition to making us more productive, technology was fuelling an unprecedented tethering to the workplace. 

Almost unanimously, readers who responded to that column felt that the availability of certain technologies  -- especially ones that can keep you in touch with work on a 24/7 basis  -- were having a detrimental effect on their quality of life.

Certainly, leveraging technology has led to measurable productivity gains (which don't necessarily translate into competitive advantage or profits), but it has also led to a culture in which the lines between business and home life, and work and leisure, are blurring. For those who leverage technology the most, it's not just getting 12 hours of work done in eight hours, but major multitasking of work and home life 14 to 16 hours a day.

The list of technologies, products, and services that add up to a work-tethered personal life is too long to list but is well characterised by the nickname given to one of the trend's poster children: Research in Motion's BlackBerry. On more than one occasion while at RIM's last BlackBerry lovefest in New Orleans, I heard the small, highly addictive thumbboard-based wireless email devices referred as "Crackberries". With legitimate email and spam showing up almost around the clock, "users" can't put them down. The same goes for the maturing crop of smartphones from numerous vendors that combine the features of a phone, PDA and wireless communicator.

In many businesses, the availability of wireless, telecommuting, and virtual private networking (VPN) technologies -- although not explicitly set up keep people on their jobs 24/7 -- naturally provide a foundation for a 24/7 work culture. Many people lament this as an unfortunate evolutionary step of modern business. Others, who are so driven or motivated to succeed that the mixture of business and pleasure is not regarded as a sacrifice, embrace it. Think Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen in the movie Wall Street or the height of the dot-com boom. 

For those who find their business and personal lives fusing, juggling the two is becoming increasingly more difficult, or easier depending on your point of view.

The same technologies that have been relevant to our business lives are now equally relevant to our personal lives. For the digital generation, the mobile phone, PDA, laptop, desktop, Internet kiosk and various converged devices are simply a way to live in the 21st century, and they tend embrace the fusion of work and leisure at the device level.

For many companies and users, the fusion at the device level creates some interesting new dilemmas. For example, even though email clients have finally evolved to the point where it's relatively easy to send and receive email to and from different inboxes (corporate or personal), does it really make sense to add that level of complexity to our lives? If we have one BlackBerry or Treo for our corporate email, do we need another for our personal email? Wouldn't it be easier to have a single inbox and one wireless device for accessing it while roaming about?

Maybe.

For this and other technology-related problems that are relevant to the intermixing of our business and personal lives, it may make sense to look for ways to consolidate. But, unfortunately, there are barriers. For example, as client devices such as notebooks, desktops, and PDAs increasingly become conduits through which security exploits enter corporate networks, IT departments are responding with policy-oriented technologies that prevent the use of company furnished equipment for anything but company business. Policy isn't the only impediment. Little if any technology exists to make the convergence of our personal and business lives more manageable.

For example, because of VPN client feature sets and corporate security settings for those clients, accessing a shared printer on a home network through a corporately supplied device that's at home, but connected to a VPN is problematic to the point that most mortals won't know what to do. In fact, technologies like VPN and domain services (such as Active Directory) can wreak havoc on all sorts of things you might want to do with a corporately supplied machine that needs to share a variety of resources on a home network.

Beyond connectivity, other work life/personal life convergence challenges loom. Whereas the capability exists (but isn't always accessible due to corporate policies) to have multiple hardware profiles on a single system that would allow users to assign a work configuration to one profile and a home configuration to another, setting "shared" software like email to prioritise one personality without completely losing touch with the other (based on your current primary mode of operation) is pretty much impossible.

Imagine, for example, that on Friday evening you want to set your primary mode of operation to "personal". The result of this setting is that most business-related items (emails, tasks, contacts, etc.) on all your devices, are masked in such a way that you don't have to wade through them to manage your personal life. Certain business items, however, aren't completely masked from your "personal" profile. While you're technically off on the weekends, your organisation's 24/7 or even 24/5.5 culture means that there are certain emails, phone calls, and conferences that you want to have exposed. When receiving a business-related message that you know will need your attention when you return to the office, you'll want to export it to a task that's only exposed in your "work" mode of operation. The same goes in reverse. While at work, you probably don't want to see those jokes that certain family members like to pass along intermingled with important business correspondences. But, you do want to know what time tonight your grocer plans to deliver that Internet-placed order so that you're home on time.

It's not as if technologies to help manage the convergence of our work and personal lives don't exist. For example, we can use rules and categories that are available in our email clients and personal information managers to help emulate these notions of work, personal, or other modes of operation. But they are kluges at best. It's not like you can change your mode on one device and have that setting universally propagate to the rest. Even if you could, it doesn't solve the aforementioned work vs. home connectivity issues. These products weren't designed with managing the mesh in mind.

As we head into the latter part of this decade and the fused digital culture becomes a reality for more and more people, their employers will have to respond with policies that allow for the ever-shifting balance between professional and personal lives without sacrificing the integrity of their businesses. But before they can do it, the technology community will have to respond with the products and services that will make the meshing of data, profiles, and policies a seamless activity.

Right now, as far as I can tell, software is sorely lacking in this kind of intelligence. Let me know if you think differently.