How would you turn off IT's always-on culture?

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CIO To Do List When to Try New Technology

The press is full of stories about Americans being overstretched and overworked. The U.S. Travel Association reported in August that 40 percent of us will leave paid vacation days unused this year. I know that work-life balance is a challenge because I, along with my colleagues in IT, live it every week. When I recently took my family on a vacation five time zones west of my home base in Dallas, I was excited because I could work in the morning before they got up and shut the computer off when they did.

In retrospect, should I have turned my computer on at all?

In the evenings, I've stopped counting how many times I go look at my phone just to see what’s going on. Rationally I know that if something alarming is going on I'll get a text or a call, but for some reason I still check. And I know it’s not just me, because of all the other people I see responding and working during the evening hours. The point is, you can never truly stay ahead of your email, but so many of us try regardless. We know it's insanity, but for some reason we still do it.

Better culture, less process

At PrimeLending we’re trying to take our out-of-balance lives back again. We call this effort Enhancing Culture. One thing I’m asking everyone on the technology team to do is send me ideas on how to enhance culture.

Another initiative is to reduce process. Here, too, I'm looking for ideas where team members see process is too heavy or unnecessary such that we can eliminate or reduce it. Anything we can do to make people want to work here, to enjoy working here more, is on the table.

Where have we landed thus far? Here are a few of our directions:

  • We plan to celebrate victories more, which is hard to do in an industry that prides itself on expediting and moving to the next step
  • We plan to work from home more, starting every other Friday, since there is little reason a lot of us can’t do our work from home. The balance to strike there is that don't want someone to take on so much working from home that their work is their home.
  • We’re embedding some of our IT staff with our corporate marketing team, which is moving to a new creative space that should free up more time to think proactively and less reactively.

Am I satisfied yet? Not really. Part of the difficulty is the mortgage industry, of course, since our employees are meeting with customers in the evening, on weekends, and at their jobs. We don’t really have set business hours. Our corporate office opens and closes 7:00 to 5:30, but the actual folks who are supporting the people in the field across the country have to work. They have to meet with borrowers when it’s convenient for the borrowers, not when it’s convenient for us.

Just as with vacations, though, we need to be able to turn it all off and step away. I know I feel the stress and I know folks on the team feel it. We have conversations all the time about it. When there wasn’t a smartphone, there was a lot more downtime and a lot more conversations with folks. I don’t think we’re handling the smartphone well as a country, to be honest. Just like email, staying on top of your smart phone literally never ends. If I clean out my inbox tonight, it’s going to be filled right back up tomorrow.

We asked some of our Enterprisers to respond to Tim's thoughts, here are their responses:

Sven Gerjets, chief technology officer at Pearson

Sven Gerjets

  1. Define success measures for your employees. Hours spent is the worst way to measure productivity and value. I would never measure the success of my financial planner this way, as an example. I would rather have him spend an hour a day on me and get a 25 percent return than spend 12 hours and get a 10 percent return. Similarly, I think the key to balance is in helping our employees figure out the measure of their success. This is often easier said than done. If they don't understand the KPIs that show they are or are not successful they will burn the midnight oil to earn your approval.
  2. Act on priorities immediately. I think the other thing that erodes productivity and creates waste is our reliance on email and meetings. Well over half of the emails we get are a waste, in my opinion. Burning through these as quickly as possible, if you can't stop them, is critical. For the few important emails you do get, addressing them right away is critical. The longer they sit the more you get and after a while you will have 100 emails that you have to spend time on, which becomes impossible. On the meeting front, I think pushing for agendas and expected outcomes helps guide the time and documented decisions and named action items helps prevent the need for follow up meetings because of misunderstanding and confusion about accountability.

Rajeev Jaswal, director of IT at Red Hat

Rajeev Jaswal

As you know there is no magic bullet. Five principles we apply in our groups are:

  1. Effective delegation with the ability to check (trust but verify periodically)
  2. Accountability at all levels to avoid the hero syndrome
  3. Rotation into roles that cause disruption of work/life balance (pager duties)
  4. Reward for the right behaviors
  5. Establish clip levels of authorization rather than the funnel approach.

In other words, delegate authority downward into the organization so our associates feel more ownership for change approvals, financial approvals, or project checkpoint approvals. This goes hand-in-hand with accountability.

Tom Soderstrom, IT chief technology officer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

This is a difficult problem. For example, I'm responding to this after 11 p.m. on Sunday, and have worked all weekend, so we're not necessarily there yet. But here are three things we do:

  1. We celebrate successes with awards, get-togethers, lunches, dinners, etc., which include spouses.
  2. We do a 90/80 work schedule, which means seven nine-hour days in a two-week period, one eight-hour day and then a free Friday every other week.
  3. We encourage outdoor meetings and provide outdoor space. We're now creating more open space inside and outside and more creative space.

Peter Buonora, enterprise architect at BJ’s Wholesale Club

Pete Buonora

Become a business chemistry expert. One of the keys to avoiding team burnout starts with building a team that has a strong chemistry — hiring people that will be driven to succeed together and would ideally spend time together outside of work. The team should enjoy doing things together and be able to bond and make a human connection with each other, almost like an extended family. This becomes an internal support system and I believe these types of teams can conquer just about anything. It is also critical that they have a strong sense of purpose far beyond just what they are working on today, tomorrow or for the next six months.

I am reading a great book called "Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose" by Tony Hsieh – founder of Zappos. I would highly recommend it for new ideas on building a great culture. I believe this is the key to sustaining great team performance and avoiding burnout. Check out the culture book that they put together. Each year they ask team members to describe in 500 words or less what Zappos culture means to them. Whether it is good or bad it goes into their culture book.

Even though teams may have to work long and hard, it is those teams that build a strong bond that will be able to not only endure, but deliver things nobody thought possible and will over-deliver in the of toughest times.


John McGregor, CTO of Kronos Inc., also has some ideas about how to mitigate the burnout effect on staff. Read his interview, "CIOs should look for the 3 C's: character, collaboration and competence."

Tim Elkins joined PrimeLending in November 2008 as Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer. In October 2012, Tim was promoted to executive vice president, chief information officer, and he is responsible for information security, IT operations, and technology initiatives.

Tim Elkins joined PrimeLending in November 2008 as Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer. In October 2012, Tim was promoted to executive vice president, chief information officer, and he is responsible for information security, IT operations, and technology initiatives.


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