Wanted: a zoning law to keep work in its place

THE radio commercial, aired during the afternoon rush hour, offers commuters what is supposed to be an enticing sales pitch: ``If you had a cellular car phone in your car right now, you could be making all kinds of important calls,'' a cheerful male voice explains. He suggests a few possibilities -- ``talking to clients and associates, closing sales'' -- then ends on a note of high optimism: ``Traffic will never slow you down again.''

Thirty-five thousand feet above those rush-hour snarls, the same theme echoes through a Northwest Airlines film promoting air-to-ground telephone service. ``With Airfone,'' a businessman in the commercial tells passengers, ``air time is no longer `down' time. I can keep up with my clients. . . . Because today you can't afford to be out of touch.''

Such efficiency! Such impressive productivity!

Only a fogy could fail to appreciate the sophisticated technology involved here (``Look, Ma, no cords''), or ignore the practical advantages of phoning from the middle of a traffic jam -- either on the ground or in the air (``Sorry, J. B., I'll be late for my appointment'').

Still, there is something mildly unsettling about these earnest messages, as if being out of touch for an hour or two meant you might -- horrors! -- somehow be loafing.

Nor are telephone commercials the only culprits. In a glossy two-page magazine spread, a Charlie Chaplinesque figure beams proudly at a portable computer. ``With IBM PC at the office and PCjr at your house,'' the headline reads, ``you can take work home on your little finger.''

Translation: Now you can work anywhere, everywhere, on your time as well as the company's.

What advertisers may be playing on here, between the lines of these glib scripts, is fear -- fear that a go-getting co-worker (or competitor) who can afford to buy a mobile phone or portable computer will be closing a sale or polishing a report while you, poor sluggard, merely wait for a red light to turn green or spend a few minutes of quality time with your kids. What a waste of valuable working moments!

Using time productively is one thing. But making every traffic jam, every plane trip, every weekend count, is another. As new technology increasingly allows certain kinds of work to be portable, it threatens to blur the important distinction between work and nonwork, office and home.

From working breakfasts and power lunches to laptop computers and pocket pagers, we are turning work into a constant companion. The official workweek has been shortened for many, but the unofficial workweek appears to be slowly increasing. As one indication, a new study from Runzheimer International, a Wisconsin consulting firm, finds that employees who work at home with a computer hookup to the office spend more hours on the job than their co-workers back at the office.

Sales of briefcases, the original white-collar status symbol, have also increased dramatically, up 25 percent in the last two years, according to estimates from the Luggage and Leather Goods Salesmen's Association of America. No one knows exactly what secrets might be tucked inside -- brown-bag lunches? cosmetics cases? running shoes? cellular phones? -- but the outward message is meant to be obvious: My work is much too important to be finished at the office.

In the process workaholic, once a term of mild derision or pity, is being elevated to respected status. Check the ad for a book club, headlined ``How a 14-hour-a-day fashion designer keeps up with the latest reading.'' Check too the breathless prose in the back of college alumni magazines, where ``busy'' reigns supreme as the operative adjective when graduates escribe their careers.

So prevalent is this nonstop approach to work, in fact, that it has even become the subject of a recent book, ``Leaving the Office Behind,'' by Barbara Mackoff, warning us against our obsession.

It would be ironic if the same sophisticated equipment that has the potential to free us from spending eight hours a day tied to a certain desk in a certain office ended up shackling us in different, unexpected ways -- imprisoning us in high-tech sweatshops of our own making. Even computers require ``down'' time. How much more do people!

Perhaps the Spanish have the right idea. During a series of recent strikes, shopkeepers and clerks protested a government law allowing shops to remain open during the middle of the day. The strikers want to preserve the siesta, a time-honored midday break when all businesses close for several hours.

However outdated the siesta might be in a make-every-business-minute-count world, it's refreshing to know that somewhere one can still find workers who are only too happy to be caught napping. To them, and to employees everywhere who know how to turn off the job and turn on the family or the fun, Ol'e!

For all our talk about relaxing -- tomorrow for sure! -- and despite our best intentions to become a card-carrying member of a leisure society, the rest of us are still huffing and puffing our way to -- what? Never being fully off duty means never having time for solitude, for reverie and reflection -- never having time, in other words, to understand what work is for.

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