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

Around-the-clock accessibility is now expected for a broad range of IT roles. Here's how to cope.

Woman working late at night in a dark office.

A couple of weeks into his job as lead QT developer at software development consultancy Opensoft, Louis Meadows heard a knock on his door sometime after midnight. On his doorstep was a colleague, cellphone and laptop in hand, ready to launch a Web session with the company CEO and a Japan-based technology partner to kick off the next project.

"It was a little bit of a surprise because I had to immediately get into the conversation, but I had no problem with it because midnight here is work time in Tokyo," says Meadows, who adds that after more than three decades as a developer, he has accepted that being available 24/7 goes with the territory of IT. "It doesn't bother me -- it's like living next to the train tracks. After a while, you forget the train is there."

Not every IT professional is as accepting as Meadows of the growing demand for around-the-clock accessibility, whether the commitment is as simple as fielding emails on weekends or as extreme as attending an impromptu meeting in the middle of the night. With smartphones and Web access pretty much standard fare among business professionals, people in a broad range of IT positions -- not just on-call roles like help desk technician or network administrator -- are expected to be an email or text message away, even during nontraditional working hours.

The results of Computerworld's 2014 Salary Survey confirm that the "always-on" mentality is prevalent in IT. Fifty-five percent of the 3,673 respondents said they communicate "frequently" or "very frequently" with the office in the evening, on weekends and holidays, and even when they're on vacation.

Read the full report: Computerworld IT Salary Survey 2014

TEKsystems reported similar findings in its "Stress & Pride" survey issued last May. According to the IT services and staffing firm, 41% of those polled said they were expected to be available 24/7 while 38% said they had to be accessible only during the traditional work hours of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The remaining 21% fell somewhere in between.

"Being on all the time is the new normal," says Jason Hayman, market research manager at TEKsystems. "[Bring-your-own-device] trends and flexible work arrangements have obliterated the traditional split between work and nonwork time, and IT gets hit hard."

The reality of staying relevant

Around-the-clock accessibility is not only part of the IT job description today, it's the reality of staying relevant in a climate where so many IT roles are outsourced overseas, according to Meadows. "Work can be done much cheaper in India, Russia or China," he says. "So you need to be able to get things done as fast as stuff happens in other places, and many more work hours are required to make that happen. When you sign up for this job, that's just the way it is."

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."

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."

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.

That's how Scott Murray, business intelligence manager at Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), sees it. Murray, who has worked from home for six years, says he regularly emails or instant-messages with colleagues late at night or in the early morning hours, and he works some weekends to create reports tied to the monthly accounting cycle.

On the flip side, Murray coaches high school soccer and is out for practice from 3:45 to 5:30 p.m. every day during the season. "I feel like that's OK because I'm available on weekends and after work," he says. "If I were sitting in an office, there would be an expectation that I'd be there until 5 p.m. or later, and I couldn't do the coaching." Additionally, Murray doesn't go totally dark. "I still answer the phone at soccer practice," he says. "If something goes wrong, my boss knows he can reach me."

Establishing trust and respect helps make the "always-on" culture work for both IT employees and management, says Cynthia Hamburger, CIO/COO at Learning Ally, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with learning disabilities. Hamburger, who has been a CIO at larger companies, including Dun & Bradstreet, says it's important to protect people's personal time and publicly acknowledge them when they go beyond the call of duty. But respecting personal time doesn't necessarily mean that weekends are off-limits.

"If you are on vacation with the family, unless the house is burning down, we will not contact you," she says. But for those who aren't taking paid time off, "there is an 'always available' mentality. It goes with an IT role and, unfortunately, the digitalization of the planet has made it worse," she adds. "There is an expectation that most forms of contact are checked pretty regularly."

While Hamburger says technology has made it easier for IT professionals to stay connected, she says the idea of 24/7 access is really nothing new, particularly among those interested in advancement. "People who have been the most successful in IT have had this work ethic all along," she says. "The technology has just made us much more accessible in real time."

Next: What do IT workers want?

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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