Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Work vs. Home

Here's a brilliant little tidbit I found in Friday morning's news.  It's not really news, it's more of an observation of society and how it's changing.

The Evil HR Lady Rule of Work Relationships is that when you are with people from the office you are at the office (italics mine).  Mostly the article is talking about why blathering all the little details of your work life on facebook is a dumb idea, why the bosses really shouldn't look at their employees' facebook social network pages, and why complaining employees should be fired as a direct consequence of their facebook statements if the bosses do look.  It makes complete sense.

This is some seriously smart thinking.  Whether you're gathering with coworkers at the water cooler, in the parking lot or at Applebee's, they're all still coworkers.  They aren't people you know and meet in a different context.  Wherever they go, you only know them from work, you really only have work things in common and work things to talk about.  In effect, you have taken a portion of your work environment - the interpersonal relationship whose only context is the at-work setting - with you.

Have you ever tried to have an off-work relationship with a coworker?  I work with a guy I've known now for about 15 years.  Great guy, salt of the earth.  I'd like to know him as a friend outside of work, but frankly after knowing him as a coworker for so long, I'm not sure it's possible.  We have other things in common, we're both dads, kids in college, assorted bicycle-related scars.  But those are things that happened separate from work, and we compared our individual experiences at the water cooler.  So even those non-work things are now viewed from our common at-work viewpoint.

Another example: I'm pretty handy.  I like to build stuff, like to fix stuff and that's what I do for a living.  But when coworkers ask me if I do anything on the side, could I re-roof their garages or install a sink, the answer is always "no way."  Sometimes they immediately stomp away but usually they'll hang around long enough to listen to the explanation of my position.

Work relationships are very straightforward.  I'm either your coworker, your employee or your boss.  Expectations are similarly very simple.  Mix into that a side project, though, and it gets muddy.  If, for instance, I'm your boss, and you've also hired me to reroof your garage, you may well feel that you don't have the leverage you should in negotiations regarding charges, completion dates and the like.  You should have all the leverage you would in such a situation and I would try to ensure that you came away from the project happy with the work.  But not everybody is going to take such pains; some bosses will take on the job, then lean on their at-work authority to bend their client's will or otherwise corrupt the contractor-client relationship.

I had a boss that wanted me to assemble something he had purchased; he was at a loss where tools were concerned.  I refused, and cited the reasons above.  He went away completely satisfied with that explanation and didn't mention it again.  However, a coworker did take on the job and he came away pretty annoyed.  He said the boss was the most troublesome client he'd ever had, adding side projects, changing the schedules, and leaning on his at-work authority.  By the time it was all over, more than twice as much work had been done, but the amount the boss paid stayed the same. 

"If he ever asks me to do something for him again," my coworker said, "I want you to hit me as hard as you can."
"You sure about that?"  I'd been working out.
"Not really.  But don't let me forget about this."

And there were a couple of times I almost had to hit him.  The boss now had a different relationship with my coworker friend, and it colored how they interacted at work.  It took a couple of years for the effects of that one Saturday project to completely fade, and things were tense for a while.

Now I'm going to add the flip side to the Evil HR Lady's rule: when you are at home, you are at home.

This is actually a little harder to do, I think.  With 168 hours in a week, 56 asleep and another 40 at work, you spend less than half your waking time with your family.  And my job is such that I might get called up at literally any time of day.  I've gone in at 2:00am, I've gone in on Christmas Day.  If I'm going in at times like that, you know no day or time is off limits.  My wife is the same way.  Our phones might ring with work issues at any moment on any day, and because of what we do, we're pretty well obligated to answer and deal with the issue.

You know you're on-call when you're walking on the beach, and your phone rings.
"Hey, are you in the building?"
Sand between my toes, I answer, "No."
"Well, how quick could you get here?"
"Twelve hours if I skip packing and start driving right now."
"I'm in Delaware.  Is this an emergency?"  I don't live or work in Delaware.

Since so much of the life you experience is at work, you talk about work things at home.  That makes sense, if you had a lousy day at work and come home in a gloomy mood, you owe it to the rest of the family to explain why you're being such a downer.  Work came home with you, at least secondhand.  But make it a point to have a home life.  Don't let every topic come back to work.  Don't forget that you and your family have life experiences that have nothing to do with the office.

Or blogs.  Hanging up now.

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