Off the Clock

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2007

At 6:30 a.m., five days a week, my younger sister is stuck in Pittsburgh traffic on her way to a mandatory 7:30 a.m. sales meeting at the large national insurance company that employs her. "The meetings have no purpose other than to ask us what our day looks like," she sighs, adding that these time-consuming sessions take her away from her productive morning hours when she organizes her day from her own well-equipped home office.

By contrast, I'm sitting in a comfy armchair in my parents' home in Pittsburgh as I write this column. It's a stress reliever to know I sometimes can work when and where I want.

Ironically, one of the items I brought to Pittsburgh is the BusinessWeek issue that reports on Best Buy's revolutionary approach to the workday. What started as an underground, grassroots movement in the company a couple of years ago has now become corporate policy. Best Buy's traditional nine to five day is gone. Managers and executives are free to decide when they come into work and when they leave. Attending meetings is voluntary (I wonder what happens when no one shows up). The bottom line, say Best Buy execs, is that employees are happier and productivity, as measured by sales, is up. The experiment is working so well that the company is looking for a way to extend the system to its retail workers.

Critics warn that such freedom is bound to encourage slackers, or, conversely, that work will encroach upon our personal lives as we carry our Blackberrys with us every where we go.

But is blending work with personal life so bad? A book reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, Stephanie Coontz's Marriage: A History, argues we're still stuck back in the'50s and '60s when men left the house to work and women stayed home. According to Coontz, no other period in history has compartmentalized work so completely. And while this economic system hasn't been the norm for decades, since most households now have two wage earners, our social policies and expectations still insist that we rigidly maintain the sacred separation.

One of the happiest and most productive professionals I know is my brother-in-law, a financial advisor who seems to have the knack for blending his work life with his personal life. I was once on a chairlift with him, heading up a mountain in Vail, when he got a call from a client. They discussed investments for 10 minutes and then, as the chair reached the summit, he flipped his phone shut and shot down the mountain. I realized I was trailing far behind, in more ways than one.

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