Disallowing Work to Mix with Family Time: Spies Do It, So Why Can’t We?

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Seven Tips to Attain Purpose and Happiness in Life and Work

The next time you find yourself staying up late into the night, working from home to meet a deadline your boss gave you, or responding to work email on a weekend during your kid’s baseball or soccer game, imagine what it would be like if you were never expected to do any work at all outside of the office after work hours. In fact, imagine that you would be fired for even talking about your work outside of the office after work hours. While you’re at it, imagine not only that you weren’t expected to take any work home with you, but that you would be arrested if anyone found out that you did. Sound unrealistic?

It shouldn’t. Those are the very real, routine working conditions of hundreds of thousands of people in jobs doing work that’s classified to protect our national security. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people who have a security clearance never take work home—upwards of 5 million people in this country have security clearances, but most of the work that the vast majority of them do is unclassified, so there’s nothing stopping them from doing that work from home or talking about it outside of the office. At the other end of the scale, people working undercover in clandestine or other operations in a sense are working 24/7, so I’m not referring to them, either. I’m referring to the many thousands of people in jobs like the one I had early in my career at the National Security Agency.

This was in the 1980s, and I worked an early shift from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. to beat the worst of the rush-hour traffic in my one-hour commute from Herndon, Va., to Ft. Meade, Md., where NSA is headquartered. All of my work was very highly classified, so when I left the building a few minutes after 3 (working later than your shift was unheard of), absolutely everything work-related was left behind. So every weekday after 4:15 p.m. or so, and every weekend, was 100 percent family time with absolutely no intrusions or expectations from work. Not a bad life, huh?

When I think back to those days, what strikes me is how incredibly productive we were—I have never been a part of or aware of a working environment that was more productive. So it got me to thinking: Why can’t that separation between work life and family life be replicated in other jobs?

I was thinking about all of this last week, when I had the opportunity to speak with Gary Kunath, an accomplished business executive, well-known advocate for life balance, and author of the book, “Life ... Don't Miss It. I Almost Did: How I Learned to Live Life to the Fullest.” I told Kunath about my background, and I posed the question to him: Can that approach, in which all work absolutely stops when you leave the building, be replicated in everyday life outside of the intelligence realm? Kunath said the model certainly offers a valuable lesson:

I found what you said very interesting, because the very boundaries people need are already set by the place of employment. They forced you to stop work when work is over, and not talk about anything but things that mattered around your family or household or whatever. It starts with what’s between the ears of the employees. I worked for AT&T for 14 years when I first started, and had to attend that 6 p.m. conference call on a Friday that some bonehead wanted to have because he wanted to impress the boss. AT&T still went on when I took that two weeks’ vacation—there was no speed bump. What I learned from that is, for me, the power of perspective is a really key thing. So first, it starts in your own head. Second, it starts with people who support that. The best leaders I’ve seen are the ones who insist their employees be there to watch their son or daughter go on their first day of school. You don’t get that stuff again. So companies that value you outside of the organization, and show you that, that’s the way emotional loyalty, which really has dissipated over the years, is reinstituted back in the workplace. That’s where you get your people to blow through brick walls for you. You don’t get that today unless you care about, and help them get, what they care about. Today the research shows what they care about is family well-being.

OK, I got all that. But the question still nagged at me. Is it feasible for a company to institute a policy under which there will be no work whatsoever outside of the work conducted in the office during work hours? Kunath said he doesn’t think so:

There are some companies that are trying bits and pieces of that. For instance, AutoTrader and some other companies have forbidden email outside of work hours. That’s kind of a quasi attempt at that. Do I think you will ever see that fully? No. Businesses can only afford to care up to a point in their minds. You also have to understand that there are elements out there who will take advantage—there’s a fine line between gratitude and entitlement. You’ve got to be cautious of that, because there are always some bad apples, and we reduce ourselves to the lowest common denominator, for some reason. So I don’t think it’s practical.

I’m not convinced. Why is it not only practical, but essential, for all of the people in a certain line of work to make that total separation, and for nobody else? Being prohibited from taking work home when I was at NSA had nothing to do with any sense that it was a perk or entitlement of some kind, or that bad elements might take advantage. It was just the way it was. Obviously, it would be impractical for many jobs, including a lot of IT jobs that require workers to be on call after work hours. But let’s be honest with ourselves: In the vast majority of jobs, is it really all that unworkable, or is it more a case that too many of us need to have an escape from the demands of our family lives?

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