THERE was a time, at least for office workers, when you could close your door to concentrate on a difficult plan or idea. The open-plan office put an end to that ability, and in the process, an end to workplace privacy as well.
But while that change made a measurable difference in workplace conditions -- researchers have found increases in job stress, turnover and even higher blood pressure -- it's likely a drop in the bucket compared to the health effects of the new workplace.
Because not only is the new workplace not private, it's also virtually impossible for employees to limit the reach of the job and their employers.
The wired office is more than just a convenience for the connected employee, it's also a leash. The ring or buzz of the cellphone, the Pavlovian sound of that incoming email you can't help but answer -- and not only that -- the sheer frustration you experience when someone from the office can't reach you in the mere seconds they expect.
Plenty of workers now carry a cellphone provided by their employer, and while the phone may be a help, it's also an erosion of the time when the employee isn't working. Who hasn't answered a telephone call or an email from an employer during time that would be traditionally considered off-hours? And, more and more, who isn't expected to be an employer's eyes and ears even when away from work, always just keystrokes away from constant contact?
The ability to move work electronically can be a huge benefit. Workplace hours can be more flexible, and the waiting game -- needed when both partners in a household work outside the home and the furnace person is coming "sometime Tuesday morning" -- can be a lot less stressful when you can download the big project from the office and work in your kitchen.
But it's far from a two-way street, because most of the traffic is going in the other direction. Out-of-office contact has more downsides than upsides, and it can leave employees feeling that their days never end. The eight-hour day has become, for many, a 12- or 14-hour lifestyle. Once, you took a vacation and disappeared from work. Now, work follows you on the trip -- emergencies only, but it's always there, nonetheless.
And it's not just office workers. Transit bus drivers, transport truck drivers and even snowplow operators are tracked in real time by global positioning systems, with cellphones keeping them on a short leash.
What will be interesting is what research on the never-ending workplace ends up finding out. Workers are never free from the next call unless they make a determined effort to not answer the constant call. It has to take a physical and emotional toll.
Once, people worked in offices, and at the end of the day, they went home and left work behind.
We've built a better, more flexible office for employers and sometimes for employees -- but when will the pendulum swing the other way?