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Flexible work hours have a dark side

What is a reasonable full-time workload?

December 9, 1998
Web posted at: 11:30 PM EST

by Margaret Steen, InfoWorld columnist


(IDG) -- Working in IT is a demanding, often stressful job, one that requires after-hours work more often than many other professions. This makes the question of how to measure a full-time workload especially tricky.

This issue came through loud and clear in the 1998 InfoWorld Compensation Survey. In addition to finding out how much our readers were paid, we wanted to know how hard they worked for their money. In a section on work hours, we discovered that our survey respondents worked, on average, 48 hours per week. Fewer than half reported receiving any sort of compensation for the extra hours they worked. And about 60 percent said they were on call above and beyond those hours via cellular phone or pager.

Despite these long, often unpredictable hours, 60 percent of respondents said they felt fairly compensated. One reason for this may be that employers are getting smarter about work hours.

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Many employers are now allowing employees to work a flexible schedule. It's not clear that this means the same thing to every employer: At some companies, working flexible hours may mean it's OK to come in at 9:30 a.m. instead of 9 a.m.; at others, if you want to start your work at 4 p.m. and stay late into the night, that's fine. But whatever the parameters, many employees enjoy this benefit. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents to the Compensation Survey said they worked flexible hours, and almost all of those said it contributed to their satisfaction with their job.

Companies are also recognizing that time spent at the office is not synonymous with quality work. For example, a manager at a software consulting company recently told me that her company has stopped awarding bonuses to employees based on the number of hours they put in and is instead looking at their accomplishments.

This sounds good, and mostly it is. However, the idea of measuring accomplishments rather than hours -- which is the philosophy behind not paying salaried employees overtime -- creates problems as well as solving them. If companies don't measure how many hours employees work but instead measure whether they get the job done, how do they decide what the job should entail?

Mary Young, an independent researcher and consultant on workplace issues and trends in Boston, put it this way when I interviewed her for an article on balancing work and life earlier this year: "We have a real catch-22. The rules aren't clear, and it's not OK to ask about them."

Sometimes people do try to ask about them and don't get the answer they are looking for. One reader I heard from recently says he is working more than 60 hours per week and his manager keeps giving him additional projects. His concerns about his workload are met with the response, "Well, we're all working hard right now."

Working in an office where everyone is working hard can make it even harder to sort out how much work is expected.

InfoWorld columnist Nicholas Petreley touched on this issue in his Down to the Wire column when he surmised that peer pressure can force people to work long hours or make them feel guilty if they don't.

The problem can be partly psychological -- the feeling that people look askance if you leave the office at 5 p.m. while they are staying until 8. But creating the impression that you do less work than your co-workers can also have more concrete consequences: A company's employees, after all, compete with each other for a finite amount of money that goes to salary increases, as well as for promotions.

Young's take on the workload issue is that it is still evolving: "One of the underlying issues is that we as a society have no consensus about how much work is enough."

While we work toward a consensus, some IT professionals finding their own solutions.

One IT manager I interviewed recently told me, "If somebody wants me to work 70 hours per week on a salary, I don't have to work there."

He emphasized that this doesn't mean that he refuses to do any work outside of the traditional work week.

"I don't say, 'No, I won't work on weekends,' " he said. "But when I have to work Saturday and Sunday, then the next week I take a day off."

Margaret Steen has edited InfoWorld's Enterprise Careers section since its inception and has worked as a high-tech journalist since 1994. In a career quandary? Send your Career Currents questions to

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