Behind Closed Doors:Why sleep when you can work?

The long-hours culture rules the IT community to the detriment of us all, argues Colin Beveridge. So whatever happened to the...

The long-hours culture rules the IT community to the detriment of us all, argues Colin Beveridge. So whatever happened to the European Time Directive?

Aren't we all supposed to be good little Europeans these days?

If so, then why are so many of us apparently quite happy to break one of the few EU regulations most likely to be of direct benefit to us?

Now I am not talking about straight bananas, or selling monkey nuts by the kilo, instead of the quarter pound. My concern today is about the European Working Time Directive, which was an extremely well intentioned piece of Euro-legislation.

Very well intentioned it may have been but it has been very well ignored by almost everyone in the IT community, at least in my experience.

If you can remember, this was a measure carefully designed to prevent unscrupulous employers from exploiting the goodwill of their staff by imposing an obligation to work excessively long hours. It came into force on 1 October 1998 and, among other things, it should have limited our working weeks to less than 48 hours, over any seven-day period.

Since then, I have not encountered any IT shop that has implemented a regime for compliance with the directive. In fact, I have, more often, seen the exact opposite pattern of behaviour develop - more and more IT staff are now regularly working even longer hours than they used to, generally for no additional reward.

I know that long hours in the IT industry, slaving over hot keyboards until the wee small hours of the morning is, by no means, a new phenomenon - it has been going on for many years.

"Overcommitment leads to disappointment, the shortest route I know to losing the confidence of both staff and customers alike."
Colin Beveridge
a junior programmer, twenty-something years ago, I can remember upsetting my manager at WMS by answering the telephone with a cheery "Wakefield, Marley and Scrooge" and volunteering to fetch the coal for the office stove.
I digress, but only slightly.

Nowadays, even in companies where the corporate culture is fairly relaxed and colleagues in other departments seem to come and go at sensible hours, you will probably find a large proportion of IT staff still at their posts, long after the nominal end of the working day.

For sure, I fully accept that there are many service-related activities that can only be addressed properly when everyone else has gone home and things are relatively quiet.

We all have those tasks that genuinely need to be tackled "out of hours", and even the most enlightened organisation will quibble slightly if you take the network down for routine maintenance at ten o'clock in the morning - that is why we all need an effective resource planning process to ensure we make the best use of our service "windows".

Mind you, even this preciously short time is diminishing rapidly with the combined influences of non-stop Web processing and 24-7 global operations. No wonder then that our service departments are under increasingly severe pressure to work longer, more unsocial hours.

Most support people accept this as a fundamental part of their job and, to be honest, some seem to positively thrive on the buzz of working through until a job is finished.

But the problem is that overextended working hours are not purely confined to what we used to call "operations". Take a quiet walk round many computer departments at six o'clock in the evening and you will come across quite a few project managers, developers and admin staff still beavering away at their workstations.

So, why haven't they gone home on time, like the other "white-collar workers"? Why are they still in the office when they could be at home, in the pub, or on the squash court?

Well, I have studied this behaviour for a while, at a number of sites, and have come to a few conclusions.

First, we have to differentiate between the occasional and habitual late stayers.
In this business most of us, if not all of us, will have to put in a few extra hours every now and again to finish off a particular task, usually to meet an immovable deadline. Provided that this doesn't happen too often, we shouldn't suffer anything more than the occasional personal inconvenience.

However, if we spot that certain people are habitually staying late, we should always take the time to understand the reason for their behaviour in case we need to take further action to help them.

Often, on enquiring, I have found that many people stay on a bit longer in the evening simply to avoid travelling during the rush hour; they may also arrive early every day to make their journey to work easier to bear.

Taken to extremes, this can result in a situation where an 11-hour working day is the norm, putting these late workers at risk not only of tiredness from burning the candle at both ends, but also of creating an unhealthy imbalance between work and home. It also creates a potential breach of the Working Time Directive and leaves the employer exposed to penalties.

The best way to deal with this type of over-working is to seek a flexible compromise, by establishing a mutually agreeable working day - either an early start, with a compensating early finish, or vice versa. This is a mature approach and is really a win-win outcome, rather than a management concession.

Having identified and dealt with the rush-hour warriors, we are left with three other main categories of habitual, late-working staff: the heroes, the put-upon and the strugglers.

The "heroes" will wear their burgeoning time-sheets as a badge of personal honour, sometimes perhaps confusing attendance with contribution.

We need to be sure here that their long hours actually produce appropriate results. Are they really cutting the mustard, or does their ordinary workload constantly expand to fill the time they make available?

The "put-upon" are those dependable souls who may not necessarily volunteer for a task but will, nevertheless, not refuse it when asked. Their competence and good nature can leave these staff wide open to frequent late nights. Management awareness and special sensitivity to the causal problems are needed to deal with these cases.

Of course, the same solutions apply to the "strugglers" - those staff who are regularly working overtime, either because they cannot cope with a reasonable weekly workload, or because they are overburdened by their managers with unreasonable expectations.

And this is where my altruism kicks in, I'm afraid.

As a manager, I have a very strong vested interest in making sure that my department does not overcommit itself, either deliberately or accidentally, because overcommitment inevitably leads to disappointment, the shortest route I know to losing the confidence of both staff and customers alike.

So my message this month is clear - if we want to strike a better balance in our lives, we all need to take strong, positive action to deal with the long hours culture prevalent within the IT community.

Luckily, thanks to the faceless Brussels bureaucrats, we already have the necessary tool at our disposal - the European Working Time Directive. All we need now is the collective courage to implement it.

Sadly, as a "managing executive, or other person with autonomous decision-taking powers" I am out of scope.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you are reading this after hours, when all about you have fled, go home.

Working too hard?
Are long hours impacting your life? Let us know with an email >>

Colin Beveridge is an interim executive who has held top-level roles in IT strategy, development services and support. His travels along the blue-chip highway have taken him to a clutch of leading corporations, including Shell, BP, ICI, DHL and Powergen.

Read more on IT risk management