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Turn It Off Random House

Turn It Off
How to Unplug from the Anytime-Anywhere Office Without Disconnecting Your Career
By Gil Gordon

Chapter 1: How Did We Become So Attached to Our Offices?

Granted, many companies came into the 1990s having become somewhat bloated, the result of previous decades when competitive pressures and scrutiny from Wall Street analysts weren't quite as relentless. However, if the people went away but the same tasks, to be done the same way, remained, the result was a mad dash to cram more work into fewer people. If six people are doing the work that ten used to do, and at the same time are expected to meet or exceed previous budget and productivity targets, something has to give. Staffing levels might have been a bit generous in years past, but that doesn't mean everyone was sitting around filing their nails and working a 35-hour workweek.

To this pressure-cooker environment in which everyone was supposed to "do more with less", we can add the globalization trend that swept through corporate boardrooms. It was as if CEOs awoke from a deep sleep and realized their competitors and customers were not only down the street or across the country, but just as likely to be across an ocean or two. To the extent that those competitors had a lower cost structure — which many did because their labor costs were so much lower — U.S. and European firms had yet another reason to keep budgets and headcounts lower.

The final ingredient in this stew of workplace turmoil was fierce competition, which resulted in the pressure to do everything faster. "Time to market" became the rallying cry: product development time lines were compressed, and it became trendy to take a "ready, fire, aim" approach. One way that corporate leaders justified this quest for speed was to point to the multibillion-dollar investments in IT equipment and services that were made in the 1990s. The new PCs and corporate networks were supposed to boost productivity and profits, and would, in fact, allow their companies to "do more with less."

This was true. But another truth got buried under the technology sales pitches. Achieving those gains would happen only after a significant initial investment in training and in "system integration" to make sure that all the pieces meshed well with each other. This goal was made more difficult to achieve due to the problem referred to by many as "paving over the cowpaths".

Trying to modernize a city by paving the dirt roads with blacktop doesn't help much if all you do is pave the existing twisted maze of narrow paths suitable for horses and cattle but not for cars and buses. Similarly, pouring thousands of PCs and miles of cables into a corporation was a great way to waste money unless the systems and processes that technology was meant to automate were overhauled — in other words, the corporate "cowpaths" were straightened and widened before being paved over with all those chip-laden wonders. Unfortunately, this all became somewhat irrelevant. The expectation was that more technology meant more speed and more output per employee — and when those results didn't always magically occur, the only way to produce them was to require people to work longer hours.

Oddly, the same thing happened even when the technology delivered as promised. Consider the case of presentation software such as Microsoft's PowerPoint, which has become a corporate staple. Before PowerPoint, a graphics presentation would have to be created by a graphic artist using highly complex software or even something less sophisticated and more manual in nature. With PowerPoint and its software cousins, just about anyone could sit down at a PC and, without much training or practice, produce an on-screen presentation or a slick set of slides, handouts, or transparencies that looked fully professional.

On one hand, this software actually was a productivity tool — it took only hours to do what might have taken days previously, and the result was just as good, if not better. But it didn't stop there. Once everyone saw how easy it was to use these programs, they were used more and more. Thus, a senior manager who wouldn't have considered asking an analyst to spend a couple of days working up a slide presentation using Stone Age technology didn't hesitate to direct the same analyst to prepare that presentation using the desktop PC and PowerPoint. The goal was for this analyst to save time by using the software; the likely outcome was that he or she spent more time on presentations and had less time available for other aspects of the job.

The Employer Bottom Line

These three forces — downsizing, globalization, and the need for speed — combined to change the work environment from being comfortably busy to being a nonstop workshop in which most people felt they could never get caught up and could never stop to take a breather.

My point is not that employers should have ignored these forces; those who did flirted with disaster. Like it or not, the pace and pressures in organizations did heat up in the last decade and especially in the late 1990s. We are still seeing the effects of those changes on the everyday schedules of most office workers.

Where Do We Go Next —and Is the Grass Greener Elsewhere?

Now you have the "big picture" background about why so many people seem to be working for so long in so many places. The three contributing factors were shown in a triangle earlier because they are inseparable; we can't affect one without affecting at least one of the other two. That's why we'll focus on all three as the rest of the book gives you methods for redrawing some boundaries in your life.

Maybe you're starting to think that the most expedient way to deal with these issues is to move beyond them, instead of working on a plan to cope with and improve them where you are now. You might be especially tempted to look elsewhere if you're in a situation with your employer or your clients that simply breeds pressure, tight deadlines, and nonstop work. If you're thinking that things might be better elsewhere, and that it's time to polish up your resume so you can find a job where it doesn't seem you're working 23 hours out of every 24, I'm afraid I have some bad news. The grass really isn't much greener anywhere else — or at least, not a whole lot greener.

Excerpted from Turn It Off by Gil Gordon Copyright© 2001 by Gil Gordon. Excerpted by permission of The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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