IT industry feels effects of new work-life realities

In the knowledge-based economy the work paradigm of “nine to five” has irreversibly changed, but this is still news for many: from people like my mother-in-law (who is genuinely worried about my job security because I work from home two days a week), to a manager who sent her employees a much-derided e-mail urging everyone to be logged on and working at 9:30 a.m. (as opposed to just being in the process of finding a spot in the parking lot).

The dichotomy between work and life, induced by the industrial age and inherited by IT, is on its way out, but there is no alternative clearly replacing it. Nor should there be one! The nature of work today is very diverse, and technology provides many innovative and productive ways to do it. For those who work with their brain, there is no nine-to-five shift. That’s why we now have a highly visible issue: work-life balance.

This is a relatively new concept but it’s already included in many corporate HR policies; however, what is really happening is something else: work-life integration. This is a very old thing, as old as work itself. People did not count working hours when work was integrated tightly with their lives. There was no “commute” for the farmer, and his “business hours” were imposed by natural cycles. Farming was not just work, but a way of life.

The same may be said about high-tech. It has become a way of life for many, and the border between IT-enabled work and life driven by IT is blurring. Should the IT professional therefore attempt to extricate himself from being connected and available at all times or just adapt to this new reality?

In many IT companies, working from home has emerged as a viable alternative to work in the office. While marketed to employees on the undeniable appeal of flexible hours, elimination of commuting, reduced cost for fuel and clothing, it also comes with many pitfalls. Part of the home will become an office; there are costs and care for additional phone lines and office equipment.

Strong self-discipline and self-reliance are needed: it is not always easy to uphold a professional image, the right frame of mind, and keep distractions at bay. And, after a while, many report an overwhelming sense of isolation, despite all the communication software available to them.

Not every type of IT work or worker is suited for this arrangement. That’s why the rate of penetration is unequal among companies.

Also, it works best when combined with team-building events and regular face-to-face meetings. Initially it was thought that the work-from-home day would be very much a copy of the nine-to-five work day in the office. But the dynamics are substantially different in a home office.

It is now commonly accepted that the working hours can be expanded to accommodate personal errands — as long as work is still delivered on time. Some academics and practitioners see work from home not only as a solution to the daily work-life balance question but also part of the work-life integration trend.

They name this “modular work” or “work redesign”, where work should be tailored according to one’s life cycles. People study, raise a family, care for older parents or take time for self-enrichment, not necessarily in that sequence.

Recognizing this fact, society should organize in a way that makes it possible for people to undertake the amount of work they can cope with at a given stage in life (or no work at all at times), without jeopardizing their professional future.

Based on particular traditions and mentalities, some jurisdictions (notably Northern Europe) and companies are better at this effort than others. In North America, we see a lot of lip-service for “work-life balance” but also a lot of “work vs. life imbalance”.

Achieving work-life balance, or integration, is still not seen as a compelling advantage for the long run; working more hours to meet immediate deadlines is still the prevalent work style, held in high esteem. And working from home makes it so much easier to work well into the night. Ironically, the IT industry, which has produced all the right tools and paradigms to achieve that elusive work-life balance, is in no position to lead by example. 065316

–Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer who works for a large IT firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

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