Once upon a time, the internet was going to free us from the office. Everyone was going to telecommute and videoconference. The office would become not only paperless, but virtual. We wouldn't have to spend all that time fuming in traffic, or sweating underground in a packed, overheated subway car. We wouldn't have to spend half our waking lives in a sterile cubicle. We'd work more comfortably, efficiently, and productively — all without leaving our homes.
That didn't happen. Instead, the internet has chained us to the office.
I don't mean the literal office. Today's office is in your pocket, and goes everywhere with you. The BlackBerry, smartphone, tablet, and an ever-expanding array of internet-connected gadgetry have made it so much easier to send and receive work-related emails at all hours. Not only that, but in many occupations, it is now expected that you can be called on to work anytime — wherever, whenever. If that little red light on your BlackBerry is blinking, you'd better check it, because your boss will be pissed if you wait until Monday to check it out. And boy, have we been trained. Typical smartphone users check their phones 150 times per day. Four in five of us check our phones within 15 minutes of waking up.
This is madness.
Satisfying, productive work is important for human flourishing, but so is taking breaks from work. We need a family life. We need away time. We need to put down our phones and clear our heads. This is true not just from some touchy-feely humanistic perspective, but from a purely bottom line business perspective, too. Fresh, rested workers who don't burn out are better for business productivity over the long term.
The way the majority of people have long experienced the office — 9-to-5, in one place, five days a week — isn't just pre-internet. It's pre-TV. It is a relic of the industrial era, when all the workers needed to be at the assembly line at the same time to make it run.
Of course, in many modern workplaces, it's still important for knowledge workers to be in the same place at the same time. We need face-to-face interactions, coffee breaks, meetings, brainstorms, and other informal moments of communication to work together productively. But there are few white-collar jobs in which absolutely all of our work time must meet these requirements.
Why not allow knowledge workers to telecommute one day per week? Or to commute at odd hours — or rather, what are considered "odd hours," but actually aren't. (The fact that we all go to work at the same time and all leave at the same time is a contrived relic that strains our infrastructure, our environment, and our family life. There's no real reason for it.)
But more telecommuting and more flexible hours aren't enough on their own to truly fix our broken offices. We also must make it taboo to send work-related emails at night and on weekends. Companies should demand (and receive) more productivity out of their employees by giving them more flexible schedules and more options for telecommuting, and by forbidding late-night and weekend work and work-related communication (unless it's an emergency).
This won't happen by magic. And heavy-handed government regulation isn't going to do the job either — like most things the government does, it would be expensive, inefficient, and ineffective. If companies don't genuinely buy into this change on their own, it's not going to work. What is needed to convince these companies is a cultural movement. And what cultural force in America is significant enough to spearhead such a movement?
The answer may well be religion. Consider America's largest organized religion: Christianity. It would be adroit of Christian leaders who are afraid to see their faith associated only with culture war battles to start a biblically rooted movement toward a more healthy relationship with work, which everyone might welcome. And indeed, the biblical worldview does promote a healthy relationship toward work, as do the texts of many other faiths.
Look, our offices are following us everywhere, swallowing us whole. Technology has given us the means to make office life more pleasant for everyone at little cost, but it hasn't happened. And I really believe that only a truly broad cultural movement, instead of the invisible hand or government regulation, can save us. Let's make it happen.