Get a life: 10 tips for achieving a better work/life balance

We all know 60-hour workweeks are common in the IT world. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Nina Buik knows how hard IT people work.

As president of Encompass, a 16,000-member user group for business customers of Hewlett-Packard, Buik comes in contact with a wide variety of technology professionals who all seem to log a lot more than the traditional 40-hour workweek. "I rarely talk to anyone putting less than 60 hours a week into their jobs," says Buik, who is also senior vice president of MindIQ Corp., a Norcross, Ga., designer of technology-based training materials.

Buik herself has managed to forge a different path. She has let her staff know that once she's done for the day, that's it. They shouldn't contact her for routine issues and should text-message her only for true emergencies.

"If our Web site goes down, I need to be contacted, because our entire organization functions from our Web site," Buik explains. "If there's a simple power failure, we have backup for that, so I don't need to know immediately."

As companies increasingly look to technology to help them do more while spending less, technologists like Buik, and the IT workers she manages, are clearly feeling the squeeze.

It's pressure that hits at all levels. Some IT positions, such as help desk jobs, still tend to follow a traditional eight-hour shift, but such employees are often scheduled for evening and weekend work as well as the usual 9 to 5. Meanwhile, higher-level managers are racking up the hours at work as they try to meet tight deadlines and respond to those they serve.

Now, at all levels, IT professionals are beginning to give voice to their desire to have some time for personal pursuits. In other words, they want at least some semblance of what's known as work/life balance.

Pie in the sky?

Given the nature of IT work and the economic realities of the marketplace, achieving that kind of balance can be a tall order.

"IT workers do seem to work longer hours. Fifty hours is an average," says Lily Mok, who analyzes work/life balance in IT for Gartner Inc.

"IT work often requires [employees] to work different shifts and to be on call 24/7. And especially in recent years, as IT organizations became leaner after downsizing and outsourcing, people are required to do more work and take on more responsibilities."

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average full-time worker in the U.S. puts in 9.3 hours a day. IT staffers work considerably more than that, other statistics show.

One study (download PDF), for instance, found that the average workweek for software programmers, engineers and technicians ranges from 43 to 62 hours.

While those numbers might seem dire, recent developments at the corporate level have improved IT professionals' lives as companies add work/life benefits in order to attract top talent. Flexible schedules, job sharing, condensed workweeks and telecommuting are some of the options now available to technologists, says Mok.

IT people have a better work/life balance today than they did when Leo Collins started in the field about 20 years ago. Collins, CIO at Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., points out, for instance, that employees don't always have to physically be in the office to do their work nowadays.

In fact, in a study released in July by Robert Half Technology, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based IT staffing company, 44% of CIOs surveyed said their company's IT workforce is telecommuting at a rate that's the same as or higher than it was five years ago. They cited improved retention, better morale and increased productivity as the greatest benefits of telecommuting.

While that's a step in the right direction, the industry still has a long way to go. Reluctant managers and a domineering corporate culture can influence how effectively work/life benefits are implemented in an organization and how willing employees are to seek them out, Mok points out.

And Collins acknowledges that for all the progress, IT workers at his company still tend to log some serious overtime. "The norm is a lot closer to 50 to 60 hours," he admits, "but you don't always physically need to be there." Either way, "we try not to have a crisis attitude," he says. "So if you need to take care of [personal] things, we can adjust priorities and move tasks around."

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