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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.

Kathy McFarland, quality assurance specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, makes it very clear in her voicemail message and email signature if she's out of the office and when and how she will respond. And like Reeves, she has gotten strategic about the emails she will and won't answer during off-hours.

"You have to try to stop the insanity somehow," she says. "If it's a focused question that I can answer quickly, I will respond, and that's OK. When it's a flurry because there are multiple people on a thread and everyone gets whipped up, I refuse to respond."

Long hours

How many hours per week do you work on average?

• Less than 40 hours: 1%
• 40 hours: 30%
• 41-45 hours: 28%
• 46-50 hours: 25%
• 51-60 hours: 16%

Source: 2014 Computerworld IT Salary Survey; 3,666 respondents

Even with those coping strategies, she admits it's hard to unplug. "You try to turn off when you can, but if the executive steering committee wants answers, they want them when they want them," McFarland says. "They don't care if it's 5 p.m. on a Friday."

Still, there are ways to draw the line, notes Allan Harris, a cloud architect at Partners HealthCare. While Harris regularly makes himself available during off-hours, he proactively makes sure people know how and where to seek help when he's out of the office on planned time off with his family. More often than not, people respect his time, but there are the occasional situations where someone tracks him down on his cellphone.

"If I have an out-of-office message that specifies that someone else should be contacted, and someone calls me directly, I have a problem with that," he says. The first thing he does is triage the problem, but he also sets boundaries. "The problem is most important, but I do let the customer know that we'll address the situation when I come back to the office, where we'll talk about SLAs and the proper escalation procedures," he explains.

The embrace of the bring-your-own-device trend among IT pros definitely contributes to the increase in calls during off-hours, says Harris. "When you give out your personal cell number, it's kind of like a Batphone — people think they can get a personal response."

Taking the good with the bad

Despite the inconveniences, IT professionals say there is an upside to the 24/7 mentality. Because people are actively working at night, in the early mornings or on weekends, there is greater flexibility to step out during the workday to run errands or spend time with the kids, especially if you can work from home.


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