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How feds with smartphones cope with 24/7 link

Aug. 12, 2012 - 09:18PM   |  
Tommy Hwang, the Merit Systems Protection Board's chief information officer, checks his agency-issued iPhone.
Tommy Hwang, the Merit Systems Protection Board’s chief information officer, checks his agency-issued iPhone. (Mike Morones / Staff)

When Tommy Hwang’s family vacationed this summer at southern California’s Venice Beach and Warner Bros. Studio, his work came, too.

The Merit Systems Protection Board chief information officer didn’t haul a bulky briefcase of agency documents with him but, instead, a slim smartphone for checking emails on the beach boardwalk or even at dinner.

“For me, I don’t put it away — ever,” Hwang said of his agency iPhone. “It is always with me. When I go to bed, it’s charging on my nightstand next to me.”

“I don’t look at it as [like] I’m working all the time,” Hwang said. “I don’t feel like I’m working all the time.”

For federal employees, integrating work and personal time has become the norm as more work from home or do work on their personal smartphones and tablet computers.

While mobile technology has enabled employees to have flexible work schedules and remote access to data, it also is raising new questions about its impact on the traditional boundaries between work and private life.

Many collective bargaining agreements that spell out when employees should be compensated for answering phone calls or doing other work-related tasks outside normal work hours have not been updated to reflect changes in technology, said Mark Gibson, labor relations specialist with the American Federation of Government Employees’ field services and education department.

In most cases, employees are not being compensated for checking emails or working on projects on their own time, Gibson said. And as agencies’ workforces shrink, the expectation that people will do more increases, he said.

“It’s the employee who tries to do more,” he said. These employees might be overachievers, or they want to ensure they stay on the boss’s good side, or they are compelled to go above and beyond to serve their customers.

“To a high degree, those employees then will end up allowing themselves to be taken advantage of,” Gibson said. “I don’t think the worst has come yet. The worst is when an employee doesn’t know whether they’re at work or at home.”

Blurring the lines between personal and work time could be dangerous for the agency if employees entitled to overtime are not compensated for their work, said Gabrielle Martin, a trial attorney at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and president of AFGE’s National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216, which represents the bargaining unit at EEOC.

Agencies are allowing employees to use government or personal mobile devices and calling them productivity tools, Martin said. But when managers are sending employees emails late at night or early in the morning, they are contributing to the problem.

“The message is, ‘If I’m here doing it [work], then you need to suck it up and get work done,’ ” Martin said.

The consequences of merging work and personal time are not an issue for senior executives, who are not eligible for overtime pay and are usually tethered to their BlackBerrys, said Bill Bransford, managing partner of Shaw, Bransford & Roth in Washington and general counsel to the Senior Executives Association and other professional associations.

Only employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established overtime pay, and others eligible for overtime could have a valid argument for compensation.

Managing expectations

Clear guidelines on when to power down are not common in agencies’ mobile devices usage policies.

At the General Services Administration, employees who telework are expected to maintain flexibility and responsiveness to the needs of the supervisor, according to its telework policy.

When managers send emails at midnight, there is a ripple effect, Martin said. There will always be Type A personalities, who choose to work on personal time, but managers themselves have to find a balance.

“If your boss sends you a question at 10 [p.m.] … you will probably respond,” said Jeff Neal, a senior vice president at professional services firm ICF International. “People like to be responsive. If we [managers] are not careful, we can take advantage of their responsiveness, and then we never let them disconnect.”

Neal, former Department of Homeland Security chief human capital officer, said he would rather have an employee who goes home, reads a book, mows the lawn and doesn’t spend every waking minute doing work.

At DHS, Neal said he often worked late hours and sent emails around midnight. But after colleagues suggested he not send emails at odd hours because people feel compelled to answer, he came up with a workaround: He set timers on email messages to be delivered in the morning.

The culture among political appointees is that you are there to serve the president, and you have a finite amount of time to get things done and work as much as needed on behalf of the administration, Neal said.

“The technology doesn’t cause the problem,” he said. “The technology enables them.”

The work ethic is the same in the private sector, where he still works long hours, Neal said. His company allows him to use his iPhone for work and provides a partial reimbursement.

“I think it’s very important to let people know not only is it safe to disconnect, but you encourage them to disconnect,” he added. “You get more production out of people and greater longevity.”

MSPB’s Hwang said his employees are in the business of supporting information technology, so a certain level of responsiveness is expected.

“We are not a 24/7 shop, but things do go wrong, and sometimes when they go wrong we have to respond,” he said. “If I’m sending out [routine] emails … on Saturday, they don’t need to respond.”

It’s an individual choice, said Kimberly Hancher, CIO at EEOC. “We all know what our work hours are, [but] we choose to stay connected.”

To clearly communicate this with employees, Hancher said she would consider adding language to the agency’s BYOD policy that holds the government harmless if someone chooses to work outside scheduled hours.

Finding a balance

Being connected is “the new normal,” said Tyler Robinson, a 26-year-old financial modeling specialist at the Export-Import Bank and director of the Young Government Leaders Institute for Public Policy. Younger people have “grown up with that, so it’s not as big of a shift,” he said.

On a recent vacation to Oregon, Robinson brought his BlackBerry to ensure his emails didn’t pile up and even responded to some of them. That was until he got an email from senior management encouraging him to power down and actually be on vacation.

Robinson said he values the support and encouragement from his superiors. And for the most part, he has a healthy balance between work and personal time.

“I feel like one of my strengths is time management,” he said. “Knowing what your priorities are in life is a very important thing, [as is] … not having your identity tied to your job.”

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