When Is Work, Work?

pearl81001This editorial was originally published on Sept 11, 2008. It is being re-run as Steve is out of the office.

More and more people carry Blackberry phones for work, getting push email and a constant connection to the office, it is sometimes hard to tell when someone is working and when they are not. It’s not just Information Technology workers, but everyone from paralegals to facilities workers carry the devices. And with the iPhone connecting to Exchange servers and Windows Mobile devices getting push emails, we’re all likely to be more and more connected in the future.

It is debatable if that’s a good or bad thing, but in either case, there might be a side to this debate that you haven’t considered. Is it legal? This article talks about how some workers, specifically those non-exempt workers that receive overtime, may end up suing over the devices long leash. For those workers who are paid by the hour, and that includes some technology workers, is time spent on their phone work time or personal time? If they’re answering email on a commute or during downtime away from the office, are they working?

There haven’t been any lawsuits, but a number of lawyers are asking companies to update their handbooks. The article mentions Disney asking non-exempt workers to sign a waiver that they would not be compensated for after hours work on Blackberry devices. I can’t imagine that standing up in court, but time will tell.

Most DBAs and developers I know are exempt from overtime pay. They are asked to work in excess of 40 hours on a regular basis with no change in pay. Now some get paid for on-call work, some don’t, some get comp time, or extra time off, for extra work and some don’t. No one I know gets paid for taking a phone call or answering an email away from work, Blackberry or not, unless it’s a specific on-call responsibility.

It’s an interesting question to ask as the line between when is work time and when is personal time with devices like Blackberrys. It’s not as though RIM is to blame as similar issues have existed as long as there have been exempt workers. At least now we get to go home at a reasonable hour. In past times, people would stay at work until all hours of the day or night. Look at lawyers, doctors, and bankers for examples of how things could be with remote capabilities for work.

Personally I think boundaries should be setup. That might sound silly coming from the guy that was answering posts at 9:00pm on a Sunday night (and Friday), but I’m the exception that proves the rule. And that’s my own decision; no one asks me to work on a weekend.

For most normal people, I think you have a right to ask for a policy and some boundaries to be set. We all need time off, we need time when we don’t have to think about work, or worry about being called. Time to enjoy the rest of your life outside work, is valuable to us enjoying life overall, and it’s valuable to us being more productive at work. That downtime, whenever we can get it, that time to recharge, gets us ready to face another day, week, or hour at work.

Steve Jones

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