Happy 'Leave the Office Earlier Day'


May 31, 2005 — -- Do you believe in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and Batboy? What about the most elusive mythological creature of all -- the 40-hour work week?

Americans work about 49 hours a week -- 350 more hours a year than most Europeans and 70 hours more than the Japanese, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Americans are also working more than their parents did. With shorter vacations, and more people logging in on their home computers, the average annual work schedule has increased 163 hours since the 1970s. That's more than an extra month of work each year.

Do Americans have to wait until Labor Day is decertified as a national holiday before they do something? Or will they join Laura Stack Thursday for the first annual "Leave the Office Earlier Day."

Stack, a corporate consultant who's worked with Coca-Cola, Coors, Lucent Technologies and other large companies, says she's got 10,000 workers who are pledging -- if only for one day -- to leave work on time.

It's a modest proposal -- if not a mildly depressing commentary on contemporary life. What's next? Perhaps employers will give us time off for "National Find a New Job Day."

"It's not about changing jobs or being less productive," says Stack. "It's about being more productive in the hours that you're actually scheduled to work."

Stack points to a recent study of Microsoft Corp. that found workers average only three productive days a week. "You know that hyper-drive you go into before a vacation, when you get everything in place so that you can actually get away and relax?" she says. "You need to harness that energy and focus in everyday situations, so that you can have free time every week."

Even if the typical worker goofs off a bit, there's no denying that it's harder to focus than ever before. "The fax started it," says futurist Dave Zach, who speaks before American Express, 3M and other companies, about the evolution of the workplace.

"When you got a letter, you had time to respond. With a fax and then e-mail, you had to respond right away. Qualitative thinking got replaced by quantitative thinking. You could respond with numbers because you could hide behind them."

Wireless communication only encourages workaholics to become more obsessive, leaving them less time to spend with their families, to travel or reflect upon their life, and to engage in the civic life of their communities.

Most Americans only get two weeks of vacation each year. While 82 percent of workers plan to take time off this summer, nearly one in four will check business e-mail and phone messages while they're away, often on a daily basis, according to a survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports, which will be published in next month's "Hudson Employment Index."

The survey of 1,575 U.S. workers indicates that 38 percent of managers and 40 percent of entrepreneurs vacation with their laptop computers and PDAs to stay digitally tethered to their desks.

"I've heard that e-mails have surpassed all other means of communication," says Zach. "We'll e-mail the person next to us rather than talk with them."

If you're wondering whether you're ready to rise from your cubicle and shout "Hurrah, for Leave Work Earlier Day," consider some of these new products and studies, all of which suggest that you don't really have a job. Rather, the job has you.

1. Is E-mail Making You Dumber?

A nonstop barrage of e-mail can cause a greater loss of IQ than smoking a small amount of marijuana, at least in the short term, a British study shows.

SPAM-weary workers suffered as much as a 10-point loss to their IQ -- the equivalent of missing a whole night's sleep and more than double the four-point fall from marijuana -- according to a study of 1,100 Britons, carried out by TNS Research and commissioned by Hewlett-Packard.

In 80 clinical trials, Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at the University of London, monitored the IQ of workers throughout the day. "This is a very real and widespread phenomenon," Wilson says.

The trend of constantly responding to messages is called "Infomania," and Wilson says that it affects men more than women. The good news is that your brain returns to normal when the technology is removed.

Persistent Infomania could cause permanent impairment. So, if you want to warn your friends and colleagues, it might pay to do it face to face, if you can pry them away from their computers.

2. Is It Time for Hide-and-Seek Alarm Clock?

Tired of complaining about work? Maybe you're just not getting enough sleep, and you're not alone.

The typical American adult sleeps 6.8 hours per night during the week and 7.4 hours per night on weekends, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The downward trend of people getting a recommended eight hours of sleep has slipped from 38 percent in 2001, to 30 percent in 2002, to 26 percent in 2005.

Need a solution to get out of bed, even when your body is screaming for more ZZZs? Meet Clocky -- the first alarm clock that will challenge even the doziest sleepers not to hit the snooze button more than once.

Clocky is equipped with a set of wheels, and once you hit the snooze button, this softly padded clock rolls off your night table, bounces onto the floor, and hides in your bedroom, forcing you to get out of bed to find the damn thing.

"Having an alarm clock run away from you was an obvious solution for chronic oversleepers," says Gauri Nanda, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the clock was developed. "This ensures that the person is fully awake before turning it off."

Those who are eager for early morning games of hide-and-seek with their appliances will have to wait at least a year before Clocky hits stores, but the new gizmo should cost about $30. And, no, you're not dreaming.

3. Electric Babble for Worker's Playtime

How do you call your lover at work? If Big Brother isn't listening, the guy on the other side of your cubicle probably is. You can either buy him an iPod or get yourself a Babble -- a device that sits on your desk, duplicates your voice and makes it indecipherable to passers-by.

The Babble removes that need to conspicuously turn up the office radio when you need privacy. This $400 device records your voice, and spits out bits and pieces of conversation, so that the folks around you will be utterly confused.

"It essentially turns one person's voice into something that sounds like a small-group conversation,'' says Bill DeKruif, president of Sonare Technologies, Herman Miller's research and design arm in Chicago.

"Anyone standing just a few feet away can hear the person talking but is unable to discern the content of the conversation because it's being muddled by the other voices."'

The Babble -- which hits stores this summer -- is said to mask conversations without distracting the user. Masking office conversations isn't just for goof-offs. The manufacturer says managers will be using it to guard proprietary information. If you can't understand half the things your boss says anyway, he may already be using one.

4. When Mommy Works Late: Remote Hugging

For any parent, the worst part about pulling an all-nighter is that you can't tuck your kid into bed. But soon, you may be able to reach out and really touch someone long distance -- without picking up the phone -- and that special someone can hug you back.

Robotics experts at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University have unveiled "The Hug," a pillow that uses sensing devices and wireless technology to send an electronic embrace to someone you love.

To send a hug, your kid would have a special stuffed animal equipped with a microphone. The tyke would say, "mommy" or "daddy" and would squeeze it. A signal would go out to that parent, who has brought the pillow to work, sending out the electronic equivalent of a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Thermal fibers around the pillow radiate at different temperatures, so that long, tight scared-of-the-monsters-under-the-bed hugs will be different that quick goodnights. If mommy or daddy isn't online, the pillow stores these messages of love for whenever work time ends. The pillows can both give and receive hugs, and can distinguish between the hugs of different children -- or grandchildren.

You can call your kid and you can both hold your pillows as you read a bedtime story over the phone, if you ever have time. There's no timeframe yet for when "The Hug," will hit stores, but several designers are working on products akin to "Hug Evening Apparel" for long-distance relationships, the details of which, I'll have to leave to your imagination.

5. Scanning for Corporate Fallout

If you're fed up with the worst offenders in corporate America, and swear never again to buy any product from an offending company -- or companies that do business with that company -- your wish may soon be granted.

A graduate student at MIT has invented a "Corporate Fallout Detector" -- a handheld scanner that you can run over any product's bar code to reveal the manufacturer's history of pollution or ethics violations. The device, which is still in development, sounds a noise that corresponds to the severity of the infractions.

One can only imagine that the Corporate Fallout Detector will be featured in different models, so that Democrats and Republicans can respectively stay away from companies they loathe.

Perhaps later models will come with personal settings, so that you'll never have to buy anything ever again that's somehow connected to that no-good ingrate of a former boss who worked you to the bone and left you with nothing but a vengeful scanner.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. "The Wolf Files" ispublished Tuesdays.

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