Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Oxymoron: Work-Life Balance

I don't know about you, but somehow the day on which "24/7" became the buzz word to describe how most of us feel we are "on" just blew by me. Maybe I was too busy to notice?

I have read lots of articles that speak to both the pros and cons of the digital age and cyber communications that drive our existence both on and off the job. Indeed, it seems as if things change so fast that pretty soon through the wonders of modern telecommunications each of us will literally be able to be "on" 24/7. We'll still be able to get some sleep, but while we're sleeping, all the data will be fed to us intravenously at night.

At ExecuNet, we talk to our members about this stuff all the time. Most recently, we did a flash survey and asked members for their feelings about all this, and how they felt it impacted what their employers expected of them given that they can be "connected" home or away.

Based on the results, it certainly would appear that employers are "sold" on the concept. 61% told us that their company expects them to be accessible outside of working hours. 29% said that while being available after hours and on weekends wasn't "mandated" it certainly was "implied." All those who are surprised by that one, raise your hand!

On top of the "standard" 50-60+ hour work weeks, 67% said they have worked remotely and spent an average of 11.4 hours working on business related tasks off campus.

When it came to our love affair with Blackberries and Treos (78% said they have them) only 56% said that they felt these little gadgets actually did something to improve what we laughingly refer to as work-life balance. That same 56%, by the way, said that while they might leave home without their Amex card, heaven forbid that they would head out on vacation without their Blackberry fully charged so they could check email while sitting at the beach bar and practicing their Spanish aka "dos Margaritas."

And even when we're in the office, if it isn't technology driving us crazy, it's the fact that our attention spans are constantly assaulted. At least that's according to a Reuter's article that I ran into on ZDnet.

I really think that we are still working our way though adjusting to the impact of being wired 24/7 and the behavior that seems to go with it versus other surveys I have seen (including a number of our own) in which respondents tell us that work/life balance is very high on their list of things they look for in a job.

It still feels to me like we are a part of a society that puts a major premium on living to work vs. working to live the recent BusinessWeek story on Best Buy notwithstanding.

Anybody else feel that way, or is it just me?


Anonymous said...


Your comments brought to mind several occurances of being on call 7/24.

- Prior to company cell phones my company used pagers. During one perceived issue of importance, while on the road traveling from one business location to another I would have to stop at every pay phone to listen to messages and return calls. That was one long day.

- As most managers know, working late at night is very common. In one case, our CIO would send out emails in the middle of the night with return-receipt turned on. If one of the IT managers just happened to be up, reading email, the CIO upon return-receipt would take the opportunity to call the manager at home in the middle of the night if the CIO needed to discuss an issue. It didn't take long for all of the managers to figure that one out.

- I worked in an IT shop where everyone in my group had company cell phones. As you stated, it was "implied" that we be available 7/24, even on vacation. A manager in one of our other IT groups figured that the department could save money by cutting back to having just one cell with a designated person being on call and carrying the phone after hours. That person, if contacted by the company, whould then have the responsibility of analyzing the problem, trying to resolve the problem, and if necessary then try to contact the person in our group who should and would address the problem. I could go on and on regarding the stupidity of his suggestion, but what was funny was that when he pitched the idea to my group they all laughed, took off their cell phones, throwing the phones on the table, and left the room with big smiles on their faces. NO MORE 7/24! DOH!

- The issue/question that concerns me the most with this topic, one which I have never ever been successful in getting anyone to provide an answer, deals with the issue of being an hourly employee of a company and being required to be "on-call" 7/24. My concern lies in the area of IT support. I know that the Department of Labor provides guidelines regarding the different work classifications, especially pertaining to people working in the IT field. However, from experience, all of the HR people I have ever discussed this issue with have done nothing but provide the "deer in the headlights stare." I even requested clarification from a company attorney on this issue only to receive the same stare. From my previous experiences the company has a right to call into work an hourly employee. In return the employee is compensated, generally with some type of call-out compensation guideline. In every other business department or unit, except for IT, hourly employees are not provided cell phones or pagers as this would constitute a perceived call out. The employee would be on the job - 7/24 and would have to be paid accordingly! Now, in several of the places I have worked, there have been IT positions classififed by HR as hourly or overtime based positions. Yes, the company will pay overtime if the individual is called to come into work. But, the company still expects these people to carry company provided cell phones. In some cases, the employee is even provided with the necessary resources to work from home to address issues. Is it just me or is this an abuse of the 7/24 system?

- Next issue. So many people today use the phrase 7 by 24 by 365. But, since 7 implies 7 days, hence one week, shouldn't the phrase be 7 by 24 by 52? LOL

Dave Opton said...

I can well understand your concerns, but even if I were an attorney, I am not sure that at this juncture on the information highway the answer might be "there is no answer."

I have always read, and observation seems to have confirmed, that the law trails social change by a considerable margin, and to a large degree I think that there is some of that operating in the 24/7 world.

My personal opinion is that there have always been jobs where a company has to be in a position of responding to customer issues at any time and there are certain jobs that get that call when it happens. We all could names dozens of them, and in our current world, certainly many areas of IT would be one. Network administrators immediately come to mind.

Any company worth working for has had compensation policies in place for this sort of thing, and as cell phones, pagers, etc. have taken over most of our lives, have adjusted accordingly, but to me that would not necessarily mean I should get extra compensation just because they now can track me down anywhere in the world.

Said differently, while we now have better means of communications in order to get a hold of someone I am not sure that I would feel they should pay me more just because of that.

Once I get the call and I have to go somewhere then there are OT or emergency call in policies, etc. that dictate the compensation.

If and when I get the call and am able to solve it by phone, then, at least at this point in time, it feels like a judgment call to me and depending on how long and how often, maybe I would do something on a one off basis to compensate the person. (e.g. I don't get a bill from my doctor when I call in the middle of the night and he tells me what to do.)

One thing is for sure, as time goes on it will get sorted out.

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