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Workin' around the clock: Managing the 24-hour employee

By Elaine Varelas, 06/09/2008

Would that 1950's song been so catchy had it gone: 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m., work?

With a recession looming and all of us trying to get more done with fewer resources, it sometimes feels like we could work around the clock. There certainly is plenty of work to do, and technology has made it easier to do it. Laptops, Wi-Fi, high-speed connections, PDAs, and cell phones give us access to our work from virtually anywhere. We don't need to be at our desks to get things done. Of course, there is a downside to being so connected - we have access to work (and work has access to us) at any time — during dinner, on vacation, or at our kid's birthday party. Wherever we are, we just can't seem to get away from work.

Of course, technology isn't all bad-it can give us flexibility and help us achieve a better work/life balance. We have the freedom to step away from our desks to attend an afternoon Tee Ball game or take off early on the weekend while still being able to receive phone calls and e-mail. But if we are constantly checking our PDAs or are glued to our laptops when we're away, technology can actually tether us to our work. How can HR professionals manage at organizations where around-the-clock work is possible? How does this constant access to work affect employees?

It's the culture in many organizations to celebrate the martyr. We admire employees who schlep laptops on vacation, come in early or stay late during the week or work on weekends. ("Did you see what time she sent that e-mail? 4:00 a.m. She must be dedicated to her job!") Unfortunately, this places value on the time spent working — especially the personal time — instead of the quality of the work. Nobody wants to be the only employee who goes home on time ("That slacker!").

Most of us know we will spend some time working outside of the traditional 9-to-5 workday. There are legitimate situations when we need to work late or over the weekend-for instance, to prepare for a big presentation or finish a pressing project. But is asking employees to sacrifice their personal time the exception at your organization or the norm? When they do spend that extra time, is it acknowledged and appreciated or expected?

Take a look at the unspoken expectations among the leaders in your organization. If a manager sends an e-mail at 11:00 p.m., does he or she expect a reply by 11:15? The instantaneous nature of technology has made us impatient. We want an immediate response no matter what time of day. Do the managers at your organization want employees to be "on call" during their personal time?

And what if they do? Is there a drawback to having employees accessible around the clock? There's plenty of work to do, so if they are willing to do it, what's the harm in letting them? It can do harm, especially to productivity and morale. Expecting employees to be available during off-hours can breed resentment. If they feel like they have no down time or can't get away, they won't be able to recharge and bring fresh ideas to their jobs. Productivity can plummet when employees get burned out.

HR managers need to ask, "What is reasonable?" Individual managers should have the discretion to decide what works for their departments, but HR managers can help determine what is realistic, and protect and respect employees' time off the clock. They can help managers strike a balance — and insist on boundaries. As an example, managers can expect employees to return client calls within two hours during the workday, but shouldn't count on an e-mail response in the middle of the night.

Innovations in technology have freed us up so that we can feel comfortable leaving our desks while still having access to work, but we can't expect employees to be on call 24 hours a day. The very thing that can help employees achieve work/life balance can also tip the scales so far, that they feel like they have no life outside of work.

HR managers can help create a culture where employees' time is valued outside of work so they can return to the office refreshed. While it may be possible to achieve the 24-hour organization, it shouldn't be at the expense of employees' well-being. The next time employees leave the office for vacation or the weekend, let them be assured that they will hear the sounds of time off — cd the thwack of a bat at a Red Sox game or the surf crashing on the beach-not a ringing cell phone.

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