Thursday, November 12, 2009

private/personal time and the networked individual

Coined as a talk about intimacy in the digital communication age, this presentation by Stefana Broadbent turns out to be more about how constant communication with people in your private and professional networks blurs the distinction between private and professional spheres.

The steadily emerging culture of networked individualism, enabled by the abundance of communication methods, is slowly changing the private/professional divide. Broadbent accurately describes how fixed times and rituals, extended periods away from (the location of) the private sphere have defined the working life. It appears even our schools are modeled in this fashion to prepare kids for their working lives to come.

This either/or proposition is now slowly eroding. Since communication technology evolved, means of communication have been eagerly adopted by networking individuals. Only when the communication channels (e-mail, instant messaging, texting) became less interruptive and more casual (as opposed to, say, the telephone), everyone jumped on it, and started blurring the divide.

This blurring of the work/private boundary goes both ways. Private time is invaded with work demands, and 'office time' is sometimes used for private matters. Why do we think this is so strange? I can't think of a reason other than our centuries long habituation and (I suspect) a tendency for group-think. You're either inside or outside the organization. You enter in the morning, leave in the evening.

Once the communication channels were unobtrusive enough to be used at the work place without the boss noticing, every one started to cross the divide, and reach out to their private network, which consists for the most part of other people at their workplaces, doing the same. So much for private/professional and inter-organizational boundaries.

A common, natural reaction from management was to forbid these boundary crossing activities and make sure every one was still 100% work focussed for 8 hours a day.

Interestingly, managers love the fact that they can now make work demands when you are in your 'very separated' private sphere, but this newfound 'flexibility' should go one way only (namely theirs), it appears.

What are your experiences, as a networked individual trying to cross the private/professional divide? How does your company handle it? Do you think it's important? Leave a comment, I would love to hear it.

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