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The Boston Globe
Balancing Acts

When the boss is away, employees try to figure out how much to play

By Maggie Jackson, Globe Correspondent, 7/18/04

The first thing art gallery manager Liz Ostrer noticed when she got to work one recent Friday was the smell of margaritas. With the owner away at a Swiss art fair, two assistants were ushering in the weekend with mixed drinks for the staff of the Manhattan gallery.

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''I was pretty taken back and simply said in disbelief, 'You are drinking margaritas?' and he said, 'Yes, would you like one'?'' said Ostrer, who promptly e-mailed the owner, then ordered the salt, tequila, and cold cocktails to be tossed.

When the boss is away, the workers will play. That's an age-old truth of the workplace. But in this era of overwork, 24/7 connectivity, and downsized staffs, workers often feel less guilty about taking a breather once the boss heads out on vacation or business.

In fact, the art of managing from afar is becoming a daily challenge for bosses in this virtual work world. Employees sometimes don't know the limits of shifting social norms, from casual dress codes to fun on the job, while bosses aren't sure how closely to manage increasingly autonomous workers. The result is sometimes a clash of Industrial Age practices with Digital Age expectations.

''We're in the midst of a transition, away from command and control management,'' says Ellen Galinsky, head of the Families and Work Institute in New York. ''In the good situations where flexibility is well-managed, people's opinions are valued, and they're responsible for results and not face-time, my guess is that it wouldn't matter very much if the boss is watching.''

In many cases, goofing off is a quid pro quo. If I check e-mail on vacations and put in unpaid overtime, why can't I do a little shopping during office hours? Eric, a manager at a Clearwater, Fla., high-tech firm, books conference rooms for ''meetings,'' then draws the shades and relaxes or just takes off to do errands. ''Getting personal time is hard if not impossible,'' says Eric, who asked that his last name be withheld. ''We do $25 million in sales. We're at half the staff we used to have. It's a typical American story. Every now and again I need a down day.''

This year, a third of US workers will fail to take all their vacation days, and another third will check e-mail and voice mail on holidays, according to a Harris Interactive online poll of 2,000 adults for Expedia.com, an Internet travel service.

And with the decline in top-down management and the rise in virtual work, there's increasingly no firm end to the work day.

So how can bosses cope? Try building in opportunities for fun, and varying employees' work loads. ''If they make it fun and interesting, as least as best as they can, why would you want to goof off?'' says Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of management at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business.

But always give employees measurable work goals and clear expectations about behavior. After the gallery incident, the owner chastised the staff for their ''completely irresponsible and unprofessional behavior'' and asked for assurances that it wouldn't happen again.

Not everyone agrees on what's benign fun, but if the boss is on the same page, a little goofing off can be inspiring. Eric Poses, president of a Los Angeles board game company, bought an office pool table so he could take breaks from the creative process.

When his first full-time marketing employee, Katie Casey, started work in May, she didn't know how to hold a pool cue. But whenever Poses traveled, she would break up her long days with a little practice. This month it paid off: She won a local tournament.

''I'm pretty lax about whatever happens in here, so long as the work gets done,'' says Poses, president of All Things Equal Inc. ''I hope she doesn't get too good. I don't want to lose to anyone in the office.''

Maggie Jackson's Balancing Acts column appears every other week. She can be reached at .

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