Calling it a day in the 24/7 workplace

The Monitor's language columnist turns to a radio metaphor as she looks for a new term to signal the end of the workday.

Is it OK to tell someone "I'll have it for you today" when you really mean "I'll have it for you tonight – which may be after your workday has ended, but not mine"?

I found myself in the market recently for a better way to express the idea of "by the time I knock off work for today, whenever that is."

"Knock off" sounds too informal. "Quitting time"? I'm not waiting for a factory whistle to blow.

The time frame I was really trying to designate, I realized, was "before bedtime." But referring to it that way intruded a bit on the personal realm. It also sounded unprofessional. After all, what professional in the 24/7 globally hyperconnected workplace ever wants to admit to needing sleep?

EOD for "end of day" and COB for "close of business" are abbreviations favored by those who handle much of what we used to call business correspondence by typing with their thumbs while waiting at traffic lights en route to their next meeting.

Both those phrases come from the financial markets. Despite the intense bursts of activity during the trading day (the highs! the lows! the roller coaster of emotions!), there comes daily a point when trading ceases and accounts are reconciled. But our thumb typists, alas, cannot count on such a clear endpoint to their day.

I find that especially true as I work virtually with partners in multiple time zones. I need some terminology to help balance appropriate professional availability with having a life.

I would not want to get into the kind of public relations embarrassment a well-known package delivery service suffered at the hands of an online publication called The Consumerist a few months ago. Under the headline "In The UPS Time Zone, End Of Business Day Is Midnight," it ran an item about a man who stayed home from work to await delivery of an important package.

He was quoted: "At 6, I called UPS and their answer was simply that the package was on the truck and that it would probably be delivered by 7. At 7, I called back. This time, I was told it would undoubtedly be delivered by the end of the business day. I replied that in my mind that had come and gone, but the customer service rep replied that for UPS, they considered the end of the business day to be 11:59 pm."

As I've pondered, it's come to me that "sign off" may be a good option. As a verb, "sign off" is a radio broadcasting term, first used in 1923, according to Merriam-Webster. A station announcing that it was going off the air for the night was said to be "signing off." The next morning, the station would once again "sign on" – a usage dating to 1906.

The underlying metaphor of radio broadcasting may be a good one at a time when our personal technologies have us continually transmitting hither and yon. (The bright young things staffing cellphone ­kiosks at the mall may have no clue that "wireless" was once the old-fogy word for "radio.")

A broadcasting day is longer than a Wall Street trading day. But a station that signs off for a few hours every night may be a good metaphor for today's knowledge worker, because he or she can't really work "24/7," however much we use that idiom.

And with that thought, I'll sign off.

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