Helen wilkinson - working@life

Helen wilkinson - working@life - I sometimes wonder if the most intimate relationship I have in life is with my laptop. I suspect I am not the only person to ask this question.

by HELEN WILKINSON, founder and CEO, elancentric.com
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I sometimes wonder if the most intimate relationship I have in life is with my laptop. I suspect I am not the only person to ask this question.

More and more of us are becoming slaves to modems, faxes, e-mail and mobile phones. More messages, instant feedback, more communication - it all creates and accelerates the pace of change. Work is becoming ever present in our lives. The current situation is unsustainable. Long working hours damage creativity and work performance, and affect our intimate relationships, as well as having a deleterious effect on our health.

These trends are a reflection of a society in transition. If we put these daily pressures into historical perspective, we see that we are living through a revolution - a watershed era - as significant and profound in its implications as the industrial revolution 200 years ago. Then, as now, deep-rooted economic change transformed the work and family life landscape.

Industrial society became defined by a rigid separation between work and home, and by prescribed gender roles. By contrast, 21st-century society looks set to be defined by greater fluidity and ambiguity. Gender roles are in flux, while work and family life are being fundamentally reshaped.

Across the board, there is a blurring of the boundaries - between women's work and men's work, between work and the rest of life.

In some ways, we are going back to the future - back to the patterns of the pre-industrial past, where women and men worked side by side, where work was located in the home, where integration, rather than separation, between work and the rest of life was the norm. On the surface, the way work is being organised looks like genuine liberation from the morning commute, from the drudgery of office routine.

Technology certainly opens up new opportunities for the way tomorrow's company organises itself. More and more operations outsource non-core functions to smaller businesses, consultants and e-lancers, and promote flexible working as a solution to their employees' needs (as well as saving them money on expensive rents).

The work/life balance issue is now in vogue and has finally moved up the corporate and political agenda with the foundation of the National Work-Life Forum, and the government's own wealth of initiatives on work/life balance. But it also has its problems.

For some, home working and mobile working have proved a lonely experience, bringing with it a sense of anomie, isolation and loss of community. This is one reason why organisations like BT are setting up intranets and facilities to enable remote workers to feel connected, and why organisations like the TeleCottaging Association are promoting physical exchange and members' meeting places.

Looking into the future, I believe that we have the potential to achieve more integrated and fulfilled lives than we were ever able to do during the industrial era, and that technology can be a tool for this transformation.

But navigating the transition is proving a challenge. New ways of working require new mentalities and above all a new vocabulary for talking about work and life and giving meaning to the new complexity and ambiguities.

Our way of framing the debate sets up a tension between work and life.

The language of juggling implies that soon, something will have to give, that the arrangement is not sustainable. The idea of balance envisages a world in which work and home, and work and family life, are separate, competing spheres, rather than interdependent.

In the US, where these trends are in some ways farthest advanced, synergy and integration are the new buzzwords. But integration can itself be a challenge. When work is life and life is work, where does one draw the spatial and psychological boundaries between the two? Complete integration can lead to people tapping on keyboards at 2am because that is the only available time. Integration does not necessarily mean less work. And when work is your livelihood, your passion and your vocation - as it is for me - isn't there a danger that it will consume all that you do?

Arlie Hothschild, a well-known American sociologist, argues that, for a significant minority of professionals, work is the place of fun and enjoyment while home is rapidly becoming the site of dull and routine work, childcare, cleaning and household tasks.

One thing is clear. We are all fellow-travellers, pioneers, innovating and finding solutions without historical precedent, struggling to weave the web of work/life. I hope you will join me here as we navigate this journey across uncharted waters; that you will find trends to watch out for, anecdotes that illuminate and insights to help you make sense of and act on the most important, challenging task of all - working@life.

See you next month.

(hwilkins@ netcomuk.co.uk).

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