Published: 22 Apr 2013
Ira Goldstein has all the perks of a typical, jet-setting, 21st-century executive: a high-paying job, power, prestige.
And his workday is never over.
As president of the policy solutions group at The Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia, Goldstein travels often but is connected 24/7 to what’s going on at work. He regularly has to access large databases that reflect conditions in the local housing markets, such as the amount of subsidized housing stock or foreclosure activity that he’ll pull together, analyze and put into presentations for clients -- all on the road. "And [while] you are out of the office and doing that kind of work, the things in the office don’t stop," he said.
But keeping in constant contact with everything his team is doing is draining, Goldstein admitted -- and that doesn't stop when his business travels do. "You never feel fully like you have downtime," he said. "Thankfully, my children are grown now. But even when I'm home in the evening, watching a movie with my wife or out to dinner, [I’m] always on call."
As smartphones, tablets and notebooks get smaller, better and less expensive, workers like Goldstein can do their jobs faster and more efficiently at any time, from any device or location.
Technology is blurring the lines between the office and the home, but the change is not always advantageous. Employees may feel compelled to remain tethered to the office around the clock, eventually suffering from burnout and making them less productive, according to some industry watchers. On the other hand, some say businesses get more productivity from workers who stay connected with their mobile devices.
All work, all the time
The solution to the problem -- for those who think there is one -- is to help employees reach an appropriate work-life balance. It's easier said than done, according to Stanton Jones, an analyst at Information Services Group in Stamford, Conn., and former chief information officer of TPI, an outsourcing advisory firm acquired by ISG.
Helping employees keep their balance
Senior managers explain how to avoid being the boss from hell:
- Set expectations. It's important to provide guidelines on when employees should respond to after-hours messages, said Stanton Jones, an analyst at Information Services Group in Stamford, Conn. Make clear whether you need an immediate response—or whether it can wait until the next business day.
- Communicate your expectations. It's important for everyone to understand the company’s or department’s position on working after hours, Jones said. He suggests talking to employees during formal communication cycles, for example, in a meeting to kick off the new year or at annual reviews.
- Pick the right communication channel. Urgent messages merit a phone call, while somewhat important ones can go by text or instant message, Jones said. Purely informational messages can be sent by email, but to encourage sharing, try social channels such as Yammer.
- Use email subject lines—but only if it's necessary. Preface truly critical after-hours messages with “response required.” Smartphone users tend to only read the subject lines of their emails, according to Jones.
- Keep days off sacrosanct. Everyone deserves an uninterrupted day off.
"The way we are consuming information is changing so quickly that I don’t think anybody has solved that problem," Jones said. "The types of information coming in from various different channels like text messages and Twitter, not just email, have absolutely blown up the whole idea of work-life balance. And I think executives that are not on top of it and are not managing it closely will have a significant issue in the future."
The "bring your own device," or BYOD, phenomenon is also erasing traditional work-life boundaries as more employees request access to work-related systems on their personal devices. One of the drivers behind BYOD is the belief that people can be more productive with access to work email and other business applications outside of working hours, according to a survey by London-based research firm Ovum.
Respondents were asked whether they could easily balance their work and personal time. The majority, 59%, had little problems managing; 16% had trouble (see Figure 1).
"Clearly this blurring of boundaries is not seen as a big deal for the majority of employees; it is simply now a part of life," said Ovum analyst Richard Absalom.
Regardless of what people think of it, the old concept of separate work and personal spheres -- with business meetings and responsibilities at the office and family and recreation at home -- is long gone. "It feels like five years ago that the work-life balance went out the window," Absalom said. "Now I think work is personal, and personal is work."
Nevertheless, there are a few things CIOs and other executives can do to help employees manage their personal and work lives, including setting expectations with their direct reports about how to handle work-related tasks during off-hours.
"CIOs have to set expectations about when it's appropriate to respond," Jones said. "Do you expect an immediate response when you send a request via SMS, email or IM? Do you expect it 24 hours later? I let my employees know if a request is urgent and I expect a response in a certain amount of time. If the request is informational, I will tell them that as well and say I need a response in one business day."
Eat, pray, love … and work
That's just what happens at Sunrise Technologies, a Microsoft partner organization in Winston-Salem, N.C., where working hard -- but enjoying life, too -- is a directive.
"Quality of life is a big focus. What we look for is that there is a balance between work and life," said Brandon George, director of business intelligence at Sunrise. "It's a hard job. It's not a 9-to-5 job and it never will be."
For George, that means not answering the phone or emails after work hours, when he's with his family. "I pray, eat dinner with my family, talk about the day," he said. “I think that's a choice.”
It all comes down to budgeting his time and planning.
"You have to have that time management where you have to work, then put it away," he said. "There are times it's hard to do so because of specific projects. It's [about] getting things done in a decent amount of time -- not being distracted. "
But George admits there are benefits to always being connected. Years ago, it was a harder to get work done if you weren’t at the office. "There was an office mentality, not an anywhere mentality," he said. "Now I don’t have to get up and go to my desk to check my email. If I need to have time to finalize things for the day, I can do it on my phone within the hour."
Paul Hillman, a partner with technology consultancy CDH in Grand Rapids, Mich., also sees the positive side of an always-connected workforce -- or the business, that is.
"The truth of the matter is that businesses are reaping huge rewards out of the fact that we can't seem to put our phones down," he said. "The reason they're allowing their IT staff to accommodate [BYOD] is because ultimately it's to the business' benefit."
The answer for Hillman is to set the parameters and define the goal of the work and then allow his staff the flexibility to determine when and how they're going to get it done. "When I do that I get much better results," he said. "So the fact that they want to do it on Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon or Friday night at their kids' basketball games or not is of little significance for me -- as long as they hit the delivery date that I ask them to hit. And I think it’s of great significance to them because they also want the flexibility."
There's no disputing that the workday has definitely changed, for IT workers as well as business users, said Barry Porozni, CIO at The Reinvestment Fund. Porozni's team does the work that needs to be done whenever it needs to be done.
"We don't have a formal policy about [IT] working after hours," he said. "We answer calls outside of the work hours. We're fortunate that we have [users] who understand and prioritize, but we also give them the option that if they can't get to some document that's in our electronic library that they need to get to, they will open an issue and call the [IT] people and get help, and get it escalated."
Despite being constantly on call himself, The Reinvestment Fund’s Goldstein is well aware of the benefits of mobile access.
"Frankly, all the connectivity the IT folks have been able to arrange has made everything extraordinarily better," he said. "But at the same time, it means you are connected all that much better. All these things make it much easier to do your job."
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