Keeping work where it belongs

Steve Chazin and family
Steve Chazin has lunch with his family at a Brookline restaurant. Chazin realized he was not separating his home and work life enough when he answered his BlackBerry on the ride home from his grandmother's funeral. With Chazin are his wife, Denise, and sons Sammy, Jonah, and Erik. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)

Denizens of the Wireless World, take heed. There's a quiet, embryonic movement afoot to slip the technology leash, cast off the "crackberrys," and awake! In short, 24/7 accessibility may be becoming passé.

Steve Chazin got his wake-up call early, when he found himself unable to resist answering his BlackBerry at his grandmother's funeral in 2001. To be fair, when he felt the enticing device vibrate during the service, he waited an agonizing 20 minutes before checking it during the ride back to his grandfather's house. Nevertheless, that high-tech low point in his life changed him.

"It dawned on me in the limousine ride back that I can't be trusted, I can't draw the limits, I couldn't disconnect," says Chazin, a marketing executive for the Boston digital file-sharing firm Adesso Systems and a father of three boys, 12-year-old twins and a 7-year-old. After the funeral, Chazin gave up his BlackBerry and began checking e-mail less frequently during off-hours in an effort to separate work more distinctly from home.

Research in Motion's BlackBerry, now carried by 8 million subscribers, is just one of a slew of wireless devices -- from laptops and pocket-sized personal digital assistants or PDAs to e-mail-equipped cellphones -- that have made data and communications portable and work-life boundaries disappear.

The gadgets surely promote flexibility. We are no longer chained to our desks. Sixty percent of 900 wireless device users surveyed online last winter by Yahoo Hot Jobs said the gadgets gave them more freedom, and half report that such technologies allow them to spend more time with friends and family.

And yet during that time at home or even at work, are we really "all there"? Our new connectivity fuels two insidious changes: We are constantly trying to live in two moments at once, and we are becoming interruption-driven, fragmenting our time together and at work in smaller pieces. These trends often undermine the efficiencies and connectivity that the devices are supposed to create. A quarter of those surveyed by Yahoo Hot Jobs said they feel that wireless devices keep them on a "permanent corporate leash."

Dini Von Mueffling, a New York media consultant and single mother, feels like a more focused parent and thinker since giving up her two PDAs -- a BlackBerry and a Treo -- in January. She doesn't consider herself to have an "addictive personality," yet her attachment to the devices had become all-consuming. She checked e-mail while out with friends or picking up her 12-year-old daughter from school.

"I couldn't relax, take a breath, and think clearly because I was always answering my e-mails and checking for new ones," says Von Mueffling, who had her eureka moment when one PDA broke and she decided to get rid of both. "I think what I hate most about them is that you are never 'present' when you are using one."

What happens when we become a society of the half-focused? We don't just fragment our own opportunities for clear thinking, we begin to give attention to others short-shrift, as many in the workplace are beginning to discover. Tap, tap go the fingers at meetings, dinner parties, kids' soccer games, romantic dinners out.

"As I look back and see how often I was rude or inattentive, I am embarrassed," wrote Paul Levy, president and chief executive officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in his blog in December, just after he quit using a BlackBerry. The device was "becoming all consuming," he said in a telephone interview.

Nowadays, Levy says he is more aware of his surroundings and more attentive to others, a change that he says prompts others in turn to be more focused on him. Yet he's not instituting any workplace bans, since he says some press officers, doctors, or technology types at the hospital may need to be more eternally available.

Where we draw lines between need, want, and addiction isn't easy, especially in a society that's both historically work driven and now turbo charged by technology. But it's an issue that employers, along with workers, must begin to address.

By issuing devices that set up an expectation for perpetual accessibility to work, companies are likely to be held liable for "crackberry" addiction, predicts Rutgers University management professor Gayle Porter, who has studied workaholism and technology addiction.

Companies have already been sued for creating undue stress and for consequences related to corporate-issued devices, such as accidents caused by the use of company cellphones while driving, says Porter, who adds that such portable e-mail devices often aren't as efficient as they may appear.

By this measure, Josh Lesnick is ahead of his time.

He's the technologically savvy co founder of a Waltham-based two-year-old Internet start-up, and a "recovered crackberry addict." When he and a partner founded the company, called I'm in!, which helps friends coordinate group trips online, they decided to discourage PDA use by refusing to reimburse for them and banning them during meetings.

"I'm not anti-BlackBerry. But they can dictate a cold corporate culture, because everybody is not communicating with each other," says Lesnick. "We want a culture where people talk to each other, and spend more time interacting. . . . There's only a certain amount of quality time you have to make decisions."

Balancing Acts appears every other week. Maggie Jackson can be reached at