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Searching for balance

News Analysis
Nov 25, 20026 mins

IT professionals find ways to bring harmony to work, personal life.

IT professionals find way sto bring harmony to work, personal life.

For years, Kenneth Stott would leave his house in Princeton, N.J., at 5 a.m., travel to his job on Wall Street and not return until 10 p.m.

“It was brutal,” Stott says. “And it was lucrative.”

It also became too much.

Stott, who has held many technology roles on Wall Street, the last as vice president of IT for the finance group at Bankers Trust, realized that his fast-paced work life was leaving him little time for his family.

“My oldest son turned 10. I started thinking I really didn’t have that much more time with my kids, not to mention my wife,” he says. “It was way out of whack.”

So in 1996, Stott left the high-pressure world of Manhattan, got a job as CIO at Koch Industries and moved his family to Wichita, Kan.

Take this quiz to determine which work approach might work best for you (PDF)

But while his work life became more manageable, Stott soon realized that the small-town feel of Wichita wasn’t what he or his family expected. After three years at Koch, which went through a downsizing while he was there, Stott jumped at the chance to take a job with Azurix, a water subsidiary of Enron.

He moved to Houston in 1999 to become CIO of Azurix. He left Azurix two years ago but stayed in Houston to become CTO at Tympany, a start-up that develops hearing diagnostic equipment and services.

While it took some time for him to get there, Stott says he has finally found the perfect way to balance his professional and personal life. At Tympany, Stott works flexible hours so he can be with his family when he needs to and do his work during the hours that are best for him.

Stott is not alone. IT workers increasingly are looking to manage their work lives so they don’t lose focus on what’s really important: their families and personal goals.

The trouble for some IT professionals is that today’s electronic environment sometimes provides a tether to their job from which they can never escape.

“What we notice with IT people is they’ve got a unique challenge. In some ways it’s harder for them to separate work and the nonwork part of their lives because most of them can literally do their work from just about anywhere,” says Kurt Sandholtz, a career development consultant and one of the authors of Beyond Juggling: Rebalancing Your Busy Life.

But technology also can be a benefit, Sandholtz says, because it provides IT pros with the option of working remotely or putting in flexible hours. The key is to make sure these strategies don’t result in more work.

Sandholtz points to a network systems analyst for a financial firm who works remotely from Park City, Utah.

“He talks about working late, but he also talks about skiing fresh powder in the morning,” Sandholtz says. “He’s an example of using techflexing the way it is intended to be used: to increase your balance, rather than allowing technology to continue to dominate your life.”

Techflexing is one of five alternative strategies that Sandholtz and his co-authors identify as the best ways to achieve work/ life balance. The authors studied work/life patterns over a five-year period, and found that for many people traditional approaches to balancing work and personal life was a juggling act they just couldn’t sustain.

The answer is to determine where your priorities are and then build a lifestyle that works for you, Sandholtz says. Approaches such as bundling, in which you achieve two goals with one activity, and alternating – switching between periods of intense work and nonwork – are two that might be particularly useful for techies.

Sandra Wheeler, an information specialist at Pfizer, uses techflexing and bundling to balance her career and her family.

“There were times that I’d be at work until 11 p.m. and my husband would call and say, ‘Are you coming home today,'” Wheeler says. Once she had children, she says, “it changed my perspective on what’s really important in life.”

These days, Wheeler is upfront about her nontraditional schedule, opening her calendar to bosses and colleagues to let them know when she might be taking her children to the dentist or participating in a school activity. She usually makes up that time at night or on weekends.

“The biggest thing for me is meeting deadlines and exceeding them,” Wheeler says. “If I can do that, nobody questions where I am. But if you start missing deadlines, or if your work isn’t what it used to be, then they’re probably going to keep an eye on you a little bit more.”

Catherine Farrell, a regional vice president at workplace consultancy DBM, says IT professionals are asking to work flexible hours, use job sharing, or work from home. Employers, for the most part, are receptive.

An employee might have to take a pay cut or take a job with less responsibility to get the flexibility desired. But it’s a trade-off many are willing to live with.

Stott says he’s not earning as much money as he could be if he still worked on Wall Street, but he has more time with his family.

“A good friend of mine continues to live the lifestyle that I left. And he has made more money,” Stott says. “But I make enough. I’ve got . . . all the things I really want.”

Possible remedies

The book Beyond Juggling: Rebalanc-ing Your Busy Life suggests five altern-ative strategies to work/life balance.
Alternating: Toggling between periods when work dominates your life and periods when work takes a back seat.
Outsourcing: Delegating some routine tasks, such as housecleaning or yard work.
Bundling: Engaging in fewer activities but combining goals, such as working out with a friend for exercise and social interaction.
Techflexing: Using technology to remove the constraints of a 9-to-5 work day so that you can work anywhere, anytime.
Simplifying: Discarding the notion that earning or owning more is better, and making sacrifices.