Scaling back on tech for better work-life balance

If you’re just about to call it a night at around 10:30 p.m., keep a nice thought for Cameron McKay, who is already well into starting his day.

The team lead of the infrastructure and support services group McKesson Canada – one of the country’s largest health-care companies – is in the thick of a massive company data centre overhaul. His work day officially ends at 7:30 a.m., but during his sleeping hours McKay “is available by Twitter or BlackBerry” should something happen at work.

It’s a temporary schedule until the data centre projects winds down but not an uncommon set-up in the tech industry . Irregular hours, marathon work weeks and caffeine overload has always been more the norm that novelty.

McKay and three other panelists in this week’s Microsoft/Canadian Information Processing Society’s Ignite Your Career Webcast Series on How to Establish and Maintain a Healthy Work/Life Balance shared some of their favouriite strategies for turning in, tuning out and turning off their BlackBerries – temporarily of course.

(Read our coverage of the Ignite Your Career Webcast dealing with IT career boosting moves in a flat economy )

Setting expectations

“Keeping the balance takes a lot of work and discipline,” admits Mark Blevis social media specialist and principal of telecom consultancy and production firm Third Story Production in Ottawa.

The father of two girls considers himself lucky because he can work from home and walk his kids to the daycare but says work does intrude into personal life and vice versa.

“I need to remind myself to set expectations. For my clients and my loved ones as well,” he said. Early on Blevis makes it clear to clients what he can and cannot do and what are the times that he has to reserve for his family.

Lay down rules

Paul Gossen a tech entrepreneur, career couch and author, says much of an individual’s time management and life-work balance issues can be dealt with by setting up rules and managing expectations. He sees his work habits often ruled by two paradoxes: high level creative results; and low level busy work.

“The two seem correlated. I see an immediate drop off in creative results when I am more engage in low level activity,” he says.

With the proliferation of social networking technology, it is also too easy to get sucked into time-wasting activity. “I just love gadgets, but they break my focus. So I lay down rules on how much time I can spend with them.”

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Forget 9 to 5

For many in the IT industry it’s more about getting the work done and getting it done right rather than punching in at nine and leaving at five, according to McKay, of McKesson.

The hours may be crazy but the smart IT worker can make this system work for him. “Get the job done and get it done well and you don’t need to be tied to the desk for 40 hours,” says McKay.

There are times though when bosses are of the strictly 9-5 school of thought. McKay’s advice: “Just do your work and show them a few small wins. Once they know what you’re capable off they’ll come around.”

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Stay connected with loved ones

“The digital lifestyle can be a strain, but BlackBerries, laptops, and e-mails are not just work tools, you can effectively use them to keep in touch with love ones when work keeps you away,” says Mark Male, software developer, entrepreneur and “media guy” for Questionmark Computing Ltd. software development firm.

“You have to accept that that we now live a digital lifestyle. You’re always going to be connected. But you can use these same tools to send photos, share your thoughts or tell your loved one what you’re doing,” he said.

Gossen also advices to make good use of the many online scheduling tools many of which are free or already loaded onto your office desktop of work laptop. “Block off time for your own self, your family and other non work activities.”

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Eat right, keep fit and walk Fido

Many IT workers are notorious for sedentary life styles bad eating habits, but even walking can be healthy alternative if you’re unable to set some time for the gym.

“I do a lot of walking. It helps that my girl friend reminds me to do it and comes up with all these new recipes so that I can eat healthy.” says Male.

McKay says a 40 minute squash game twice a week does wonders for keeping his energy level up. A twice-a-week gym routine is dangerously falling behind though, he admits.

Gossen walks his dog for about 15 minutes a day and does Hot Yoga.

Take a break

How often to techies go on vacation and take a break from their BlackBerries? Not very often.

“I’m not the vacation type. I’m a single guy and pretty happy with my laptop and BlackBerry when I’m out on a work trip,” says McKay.

Gossen does a lot of work-related travel as well. “I know it’s important to get a vacation. I’ll sometimes squeeze in two or three days during an out of country trip.”

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Blevis does go off with his wife on week-long vacations.

“These are opportunities to get a different perspective on things, get a different view on things and you take that knowledge back with you and you work better.” He still remains connected though and checks on his social networks while away.

Male and his wife favour getaways to remote camping sites. “We take long holidays, but the tech tools go with us.

“But you have to remember to schedule a shut-off time. If you can set a rule that that BlackBerry will remain off for next few hours, then you’ll have a better time.”

Rick Claus, senior IT product advisor for Microsoft Canada and co-host of the Webcast swears by a “smart phone – stupid phone approach.”

“I keep the smart phone on for regular days and carry an ordinary phone good only for calls on the weekends or during breaks,” he said.

Microsoft’s Ingite Your Career series continues next week with How to Become a Great Leader on March 24.

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