When an after-hours BlackBerry leads to overtime demands

If IT managers could get paid overtime whenever they’d had to check their BlackBerry outside of office hours, a lot of them would be rich by now.

A story is making the rounds about how ABC News was trying to put a clause in their writer’s contracts that they would not be compensated for checking e-mail on a company-issued device after 5:00 p.m. The employee’s union lashed out, saying that it’s trying to avoid a 24/7 workplace for its members and that mobile computing shouldn’t “shackle” people to their jobs. Technology professionals everywhere probably got a good laugh from that one. Reportedly, things have since been resolved, although the details weren’t made public, and we don’t know if either side was really satisfied. For at least three days, though, some writers at ABC News had their BlackBerry devices taken away. Not a good sign.

Although it may sound like an isolated incident, the story indicates a looming problem for organizations that are using technology to improve productivity. The long-promised anytime/anywhere access of mobile computers quickly translates into work always/wherever, and as such it could have a big bearing on how some applications and tools are adopted by users. If workers feel technology is keeping them on a short leash, life won’t get any easier for the IT departments who are helping to keep the leash properly fastened.

In the case of ABC News, the BlackBerries were company property, but it’s not hard to imagine similar conflicts arising over the equipment purchased and used by individual employees. If they want access to the network, for example, overtime may become the hidden cost of connectivity. Already there are bosses who expect employees to be reachable via cell phone at all hours. What happens when more of those cell phones integrate PC-like functionality that would give them the ability to access work-related data and applications?

This speaks to a detail in the ABC News story that probably went unnoticed in the hysteria over the always-contentious issue of overtime. The writer’s guild said checking e-mail was one thing. It was when that e-mail led to scripts being written or guests scheduled for the show. This is when the issue gets thornier. Should knowledge workers be paid overtime merely for awareness of information, or only for awareness that leads to immediate action?

These aren’t IT issues, of course. They are HR issues, but HR isn’t always in the room when senior management authorities access to information to workers in the field, or when the successful deployment of a Web-based tool is marred by the poor morale of sleepless employees. For actual technology professionals, the probability of overtime should be worked into the contract or the bonus structure, as is already done in many organizations. But the overall goal in most enterprise companies is to reduce the amount of IT department overtime by engineering a better application and hardware infrastructure. It’s everyone else’s overtime that, if the infrastructure scales well, is bound to keep going up.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Shane Schick
Shane Schick
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