The Jet Blue flight attendant's dramatic de-planing last week says a lot about workplace frustration, a problem that may be increasing in IT.
A few days before flight attendant Steven Slater released a rear chute and exited his career with a couple of cans of beer in hand, an organization of IBM users meeting at the Share conference in Boston held an informal discussion entitled "The Mythical 40-Hour Week."
It wasn't a gripe session as much as a chance to share notes about what's going in IT workplaces since the Great Recession. What emerged was an insider's view of the frustrations building among tech workers as work days lengthen, pay remains stagnant and career growth appears thwarted.
Those taking part in the discussion asked that their names not be used so they could speak frankly.
"You don't know how many hours you work - it's all about getting the job done," said one IT worker. "There are lots, lots of people in IT who are expected to work far more than a 40-hour week," said another. Sixty hour weeks are common.
Yet another worker described bosses who expect their employees to work late into the night if need be to fix problems and then be on the job the next day at the usual time. Even vacation time is no longer sacrosanct: one person said he expects to be contacted "more than a half dozen times" during his time off.
Even if companies are getting more unpaid hours from their workers in today's climate, the companies themselves may be getting hurt in other ways, according to the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) in Washington, D.C. The CEB conducts ongoing behavioral surveys of employee attitudes, and many of its clients are Fortune 500 firms.
The willingness of employees to "exert high levels of discretionary effort" -- or put in the extra effort to get a job done -- remains at low levels, the CEB found in its most recent survey, completed in the second quarter.
This willingness to put in extra effort fell from about 12% of workers in 2007 to about 4% last year. It was the lowest level in 10 years. The latest CEB survey of nearly 20,000 IT workers said that percentage had changed little and is now at 4.6%.
Employees willing the put in the most discretionary effort to get something done are usually the ones most important to an organization, according to CEB. "IT workers are usually motivated around a different set of factors than your rank-and-file employee," said Conrad Schmidt, executive director of the human resource practice at CEB. "They care a little bit less about whom they are working for than the technologies they are working with and the work they are doing."
The recession has changed conditions for these workers, he said. While recent restructurings may have created new opportunities for motivated workers, organizations may not be making that clear to their employees.
As a result, valuable IT employees might leave organizations for those "that are better able to articulate the role of IT," said Schmidt. If there isn't a coordinated vision that links IT to a firm's future, "we're going to lose these folks," he said.
Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant, had a job that involved constant customer interaction -- and few ways to retreat from it. Although various stories have emerged about exactly what happened, Slater's slide into history has taken on a life of its own among disgruntled workers in general.
IT help desk workers, who sometimes have to deal with disgruntled and whinny users, might feel similar frustrations.
"Obviously, the help desk can't leave their jobs in such grand style," said Donna Earl, who heads a San Francisco consulting firm, Help Desk Coach. But they do have an option that Slater didn't: Help desk workers can hit the "mute button," take a moment to vent about the customer, then return to the call, she said.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.