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The 'always-on' IT culture: Get used to it

Beth Stackpole | April 8, 2014
Thanks to factors ranging from BYOD and flexible work arrangements to the global economy, a broad range of IT roles demand around-the-clock accessibility. IT professionals say it's part of the territory and are devising strategies to cope.

Checking in

How frequently, on average, do you check messages or communicate with your office during nonscheduled work hours such as evenings, weekends, holidays or vacation?

• Very frequently: 22%
• Frequently: 33%
• Sometimes: 28%
• Rarely: 15%
• Never: 2%

Source: 2014 Computerworld IT Salary Survey; 3,673 respondents

Being available may be part of the job, but demands can become onerous, notes Robert Sample, formerly a senior technical analyst with Cox Media Group. "When I started in the 1998 to 1999 time frame, a person would be on call for a week, and typically you might get one or two contacts during off hours," says Sample, who is currently between jobs. "Over the last few years, the change has been toward immediate responsiveness and more active involvement."

At Cox Media, Sample was issued a BlackBerry that pinged him with an email alert when a trouble ticket was started. "Our SLA [service-level agreement] specified a response within four hours no matter what," he says. "That goal didn't even consider whether it was [during] work hours."

Many IT professionals say they've made a routine of frequent check-ins. It helps avert problems and makes the workday smoother, they say, since there often isn't enough time during traditional hours to get everything done. That's partly what motivates Merlyn Reeves to make herself available around the clock.

A project manager for a network communications provider, Reeves works from home. She says the need to coordinate with colleagues in different time zones means she might have to chair a conference call at 7 a.m. or respond to emails while watching 60 Minutes on a Sunday night. She keeps her cellphone bedside so she can respond to the occasional email at night, and she works on Sundays to get a jump-start on the week.

Reeves says she doesn't do that because her managers expect it; rather, it's her personal work ethic that drives her. "It's not spoken that it's expected, and if I didn't respond at 8 p.m. on Sunday night, no one would chastise me," she says. "But as a project manager, I don't ever want to be the holdup to getting something done."

Making 24/7 work

Work ethic aside, Reeves and other IT professionals have developed strategies for managing the "always-on" requirement in the hopes of creating a modicum of work/life balance. Reeves won't wade in on certain email discussions during off-hours, and she's learned to take vacation during Christmas week, when many people aren't working, so she can unplug without the stress.

Sample has also changed the way he vacations. "I've started taking a cruise every year," he says. "You get a few miles offshore, and cellphones don't work. That way, you can take a vacation and not have to worry about problems until you get back."


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