Bringing work home a status symbol: Study

But fee-for-service environment not a good or fair way to judge employee value

Professionals whose work is measured by billable hours, such as lawyers, IT workers and consultants, are more likely to find their work time bleeding into their personal time. And the technology that was supposed to help workers get more done faster is actually contributing to the problem, said Sam Ladner, sociologist and lecturer at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“Mobile technology greatly increases the permeability of the division between home and work,” she said. “Paid work is inserted into private life in slivers of stolen BlackBerry moments and covert mobile phone calls to the office.”

To better understand the interplay of work and private life, Ladner interviewed 20 IT workers at interactive agencies (which create online and mobile advertising campaigns for clients). She also surveyed 59 agency workers about their availability outside the office to build a study that will be published this fall in the Canadian Journal of Communication.

With agency workers, Ladner found only senior workers had work-issued cellphones and BlackBerrys, but most workers had a work laptop, so they were still expected to work from anywhere, including home. And since the senior workers had cellphones and BlackBerrys, other workers would use their personal devices for work purposes to emulate the workers they aspired to become.

“If you go into a new organization and all the senior people wear ducks on their heads and you want to be a senior person yourself some day, you’re probably going to start wearing a duck on your head, however silly it may seem to outsiders. That’s exactly the same thing as a BlackBerry,” said Ladner. “If you want to be successful and move up in that organization, you’re going to emulate what the senior people do.”

Only five per cent of respondents to the online survey said they are never available for work outside regular office hours, while an overwhelming 90 per cent said they’re available in the evenings and 81 per cent said they’re available on weekends. Nearly one-half (44 per cent) of respondents said they’re even available during the night.

“It makes you wonder what they are expecting to happen while everyone else is asleep,” said Ladner.

In these agencies, an employee’s worth is determined by billable hours — the time the client agrees to pay for a service or product — and non-billable work has no value.

“Workers tend to adopt this concept themselves and not really count (non-billable work) as work,” she said.

So employees end up trying to hide it because if they have too much non-billable time they’ll look less efficient, said Ladner. But this work is necessary in order to make the billable work possible.

“You will do a lot of invisible work in order for that visible work to be rendered real,” she said. These tasks include replying to e-mails, doing research, staying current on market trends and consulting with colleagues and clients.

There’s evidence that for every billable hour, an employee works at least one non-billable hour, said Ladner. If an employee is billing 35 hours a week, often the minimum expected, then she must be working at least an extra 35 hours. It’s that work that bleeds into an employee’s private time, she said.

The time sheet, which employers use to track billable hours, is a product of the industrial era. In a manufacturing environment it helped workers make divisions between work time and private time, said Ladner.

But today’s workplaces aren’t like that, she said. People work in the office Monday to Friday, but they also socialize at work. They bring work home on weekends and they work remotely and on the road. This results in work and play becoming intermingled and confused.

While a time sheet might show an employee is only logging 35 or 40 hours, Ladner’s study found workers’ actual experience of time is more unstructured and client demands could change how many hours need to be worked and when, as well as the intensity or speed of that work.

This reality, coupled with the devaluing of non-billable work, is at odds with time sheets and employers in a fee-for-service environment need to find a better method to calculate the value of an employee’s work, said Ladner.

“If we’re able to value complex, credit-flop derivative contracts, we can value software or management consulting or interactive marketing strategy. We can value that, we just haven’t put our minds to it,” she said.

Advice for employers

What agencies and others can do to improve work-life balance

It is exceedingly difficult to recruit and retain great employees, said Sam Ladner, a sociologist who studies the overlap between work and life. As employees get older and have families, the division between home and work only gets more important, not less, she said.

Ladner has the following recommendations for employers that have billable hours — be they interactive agencies, law firms or consulting firms.

Have a clear policy about contacting employees during “emergencies.” Employers should have clear guidelines around contacting employees at home. Employers should recognize that when employees are contacted at home, their families are involved. What constitutes an emergency? Write that policy down and make it clear to everyone.

Compensate employees for all mobile technology use. In Ladner’s online survey of 59 IT workers, 73 per cent use their personal cellphones and 24 per cent use their personal BlackBerrys for company use. These workers often have trouble receiving compensation for that use. Workers should never be required to underwrite a company’s operating costs, as this only breeds resentment. Instead, employers should have a clear and easy expense-reporting process.

Abandon billable hours. Many finance managers might scoff at this recommendation, but Ladner is convinced the only way any agency will be competitive, innovative, creative and have lower turnover is to rid itself of billable hours. Billable hours change the agency’s business from selling creative solutions to simply selling time. When all you sell is time, you must always sell more of it to be competitive and there is only so much time in a workday. Instead, firms should bill clients for the value they provide.

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