Using Separate Work and Personal Devices
I used to regularly log in to personal accounts on my work computer, and log in to digital work environments from my home computer. When COVID struck, there was suddenly a lot of time spent working on computers from home. This is when I decided it would be best to go for a strict separation of work and personal devices.
Where I work, employees are encouraged to take their laptops home for personal use. I have never thought that a good idea, but did for a long time consider it normal to log in to personal accounts using my work laptop.
Here are some examples of personal accounts I would access from a work device:
- online banking
- online purchases
- personal email
- personal media accounts
- personal social media accounts
Additionally, I still carried an Android smartphone at the time and would log on to the workplace's Wi-Fi network with it. This would then enable me to access all of my personal accounts via my employer's network.
Being available online after work hours is becoming normalised. I now see this as an unhealthy and unproductive development, but for a long time, my work Gmail was one of the active accounts on the Chrome browser, enabling me to switch to work email quickly.
On my Android smartphone, my work Gmail account was logged in by default alongside my personal Google account. I did not have this setup for very long though, one of the early indications of the changes I would end up making.
What's wrong with double logins?
Though a lot less exciting than your social media accounts, a service like Gmail also uses attention engineering tricks to keep you checking in. One of the most obvious is notification pings or lights on your smartphone, with the sad result that you end up checking your work email to scratch the itch of wanting to be liked. That is a very low bar.
Despite the idea of a work-life balance being commonly accepted wisdom today, I tend to agree with Cal Newport's claim in his book Digital Minimalism that we don't need to be too precious about protecting our down time. It's quite OK to push yourself a bit. I write these blog posts in the evening hours after a day of teaching, and I plan future posts on the weekends. Writing is hard work, but it feels creative and satisfying. For some, continuing to work for their employer in the evenings will bring a sense of fulfilment, and of course, some are self-employed. But reconnecting with your paid work just because you're logged in on your devices is counter-productive. I do think genuine breaks from projects, work or otherwise, can make us more effective when we return to them.
Additionally, sending constant reminders to colleagues that you are available outside of office hours and even during weekends or holidays will strengthen their perception of you being available always. Fortunately, this is a process that works just as well in reverse.
Separating personal and work data
I ultimately fall on the 'healthier to disconnect' side of the debate, but there is a more concrete reason to separate work and personal accounts, and that is that you cannot know for sure what your employer can see.
When you log on to your workplace's network with your smartphone, how much of that data transfer can be monitored by your employer or the systems administrator? Who is your work's Internet Service Provider, and what do they log? When you type usernames, passwords and financial details into a browser on a work laptop, how private are those transactions? Are files stored in a workspace Google drive really private?
In my experience, most work devices are administered by the workplace's IT department. This is in part to protect the network and avoid employees installing malware by accident. It also helps for admins to be able to install software updates remotely. Perhaps I sound paranoid, but I assume that kind of oversight must comes with privileged levels of access, something I discovered first hand when I built my first server and invited my friends to store their data there.
So, I decided to stop using work devices for personal accounts a few years ago. I must admit, I was surprised to discover an added bonus to this uncompromising approach was more peace of mind.
Working from home
Work-life balance was really tested for all of us during the pandemic. Suddenly, we had to work from home. While this came with some unexpected, welcomed freedoms, it also brought the office into our private spaces. I had to teach high school classes from my living room, over Zoom or the Google equivalent. It seemed I had no option but to begin signing into work accounts on home devices after all.
A close friend who works in IT helped find a solution; he suggested I use a dedicated work laptop at home. I had an old MacBook Air lying around, and I began by wiping it. I then installed it as a workspace-only laptop, with the added bonus that I was the device's administrator. I decided not to install the usual convenient tools for file-sharing between devices (cloud applications, online notes applications, password managers, synced bookmarks, etc.). This was going to be a dedicated work laptop.
It worked. During COVID, it was a relief to be able shut the lid on work at end of the day and put the device on a shelf. I spent way too much time on screens during lock-downs, but at least I felt I could relax completely when working on a personal device and not worry about work intruding.
Looking back, I believe having separate work and personal devices did a lot of good for my mental health during that challenging time.
There are problems with this approach, especially if you adhere to the separation strictly.
The first I've mentioned already: how do I share files between the work and the personal device? Using a USB stick felt cumbersome, but I really wanted to stick to the plan.
Not logging in to personal accounts on work devices means you cannot make any purchases during the work day. This means no concert tickets, travel planning, and item orders. You get used to it. I do all of that at night. Banking transactions have to wait too.
Not logging in to work accounts on home devices creates awkward situations when you're unable to meet a deadline during office hours. For a time, I would carry my work laptop home with me on such occasions, but didn't like the extra weight. COVID helped me bit the bullet and wipe an older laptop for doing work at home.
Finally, an extra device means extra cost. I was lucky I had an unused MacBook, old but fast enough for work. If I hadn't had that laptop, however, I would have had to invest in a new device.
A solution that works well enough to address the file-sharing problem is email. When I need to be able to access a file or link on my work laptop, I send an email from my personal account to my work account. I don't often need to do the reverse; the rare exception may be a reminder to self to pay for something. Don't forget to sign off cordially.
When I finally had a working Nextcloud server that I could maintain with some confidence, I created a dedicated work profile on it, which I could access via my public domain name. This is quite useful for notes and planning tools like Deck, but I don't use it as much as I thought I would.
I love Standard Notes, and I have installed the free version on my work devices. This means there is no cross-over between personal and work notes, which is ultimately safer. I do miss some of the subscription features and tools, but don't want to pay twice.
I rarely take my smartphone to work. I mostly carry my Light Phone 2 whenever I leave the home. If I do need my smartphone for some reason, like when making a doctor's appointment or buying concert tickets that are going to sell out quickly, I connect my smartphone to the Light Phone's hotspot, not my work Wi-Fi.
Find out more about Cal Newport's book Digital Minimalism on his website. I have not yet read Deep Work, but that book seems relevant to this post's topic too.
-----Discuss on Reddit-----
Subscribe to my blog via email or RSS feed.
Back to Blog