How to Be a Workaholic Without Being a Jerk

In the year 2020, technology such as web-connected mobile phones will continue to blur the boundaries between people’s work and personal lives — as well as their real and online lives — according to a survey of “Internet leaders, activists and analysts” conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life and released a few days ago. From the report:

The divisions between personal time and work time and between physical and virtual reality will be further erased for everyone who is connected, and the results will be mixed in their impact on basic social relations.

Of course, as the increasing incidents of parents checking BlackBerrys at soccer games and job fairs held in virtual worlds makes clear, the impact has already turned up mixed results. In particular, as boundaries become blurred, so do manners. And I’m not talking about which fork to use; I’m simply talking about considering how your behavior makes other people feel. Below are a few tips for navigating these murky waters with grace — something I still fail to do. You may already know these, but when it comes to polite behavior, a refresher never hurts. As a bonus, some of these tips could make you more productive, too!

  1. Pick a social network for each persona, and be strict about who gets in. Maybe Facebook is for friends and LinkedIn is for business. Or maybe you have a secret identity on Facebook for your buddies or a password-protected personal blog. The web offers many wonderful tools for updating folks about your personal life, but the best ones offer you a way to keep others out. Use these filters, especially if you don’t want to offend coworkers or clients with the latest tale about your ex. Don’t rely on them not finding you. They can — and will.
  2. Add your contacts to your cell phone and screen, baby, screen. This is my most common failing. I only use one number for all of my calls and I am lazy about updating new numbers. So, when a number shows up after hours that I don’t recognize, I occasionally answer it. More often than not, I’m stuck with an apologetic PR person who hears my kid shrieking in the background and wonders why I answered the phone if I can’t talk. Guys, it’s me, not you.
  3. Broadcast your communication preferences. Don’t be shy about letting people know you prefer email to phone calls, and update your status message so coworkers know when you’re around. One of my colleagues uses her outgoing voicemail message to let people know she checks email far more often than her voicemail, and she suggests people contact her that way instead.
  4. Keep your online presence on the up and up. If you’re going to identify yourself, your tweets, blogs, tumblr logs and even comments should be something you could say in front of a client. If you want your clients to know (or ask) about your baby’s bowel movements, then talk about it openly online. If that drunken night at a strip club doesn’t fit with your professional image, then keep those tweets to yourself.
  5. People and existing conversations trump gadgets and potential conversations. No matter if you’re talking face-to-face with a person in the real world or a virtual one, when an electronic interruption chimes in, take a second to offer an, “Excuse me.”  If you must, answer it. Better yet, ignore it if it’s not pressing. This is one of those “basic societal relations” that shouldn’t be changed, but somehow as we spend more time on our mobiles this rule is the one broken most often.
  6. Focus on one task. I am so guilty of this, partly because I work from home, but also because I tend blend my work and personal life. I try to juggle instant messaging with my editor, interviews and cooking dinner. This cheats everyone — and results in terrible food. And so, yes, I deserve the karmic payback of having to pee next to someone talking on their cell phone in the bathroom stall next to mine.

If technology gives us the tools to work from anywhere, we need to make sure we manage the fluidity that comes with combining our working and personal lives as well as making sure our virtual persona passes professional muster. Until there’s a better way to manage or maintain these boundaries, manners will have to see us through.