Alex Delaney puts in long hours as a manager at ISM Canada, an IBM company that provides information technology sales and service in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. But don't expect to find him at work in his Victoria home office between 8:40 and 9:10 a.m., or at selected points in the afternoon.
Those are the periods Mr. Delaney, 44, blocks off to take his two young kids to and from school and to look after other family matters. Later in the day, when others have already punched the clock, he might turn his attention back to business.
Mr. Delaney expects much the same of his staff of 50, who deliver hardware and software to clients throughout British Columbia.
"We know who does what over time and whether they meet their targets and get their results," he says, explaining that the unionized workers put in a set number of hours over two-week periods, and can take time off as necessary, having informed their supervisors. "You don't have to be at a desk staring at a screen all day."
Taking care of personal issues on company time – and vice versa – are more and more the norm today, especially as information technology presents new opportunities and creates cultures that blur the lines between work life and home life. Yet sometimes it's necessary to draw the line, experts say.
"The whole notion of whatever 'regular office hours' mean is in question," says Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. "It's almost part of the job description to expect role-blurring."
Dr. Schieman is working on a major study, sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, on the interface between work and personal life and its effects on health, relationships and productivity. It is based on interviews with 6,000 Canadians over a period of four years.
He says that the intrusion of work into home time "keeps people up at night, feeling anxiety, rushed for time." That kind of stress can be balanced by being able to look after personal chores in work hours, but "the two stressors can compound each other," he says, and higher-status workers are more likely to let their jobs dominate.
"The border that goes from personal to work is much less permeable. … It's more acceptable for work to interfere with personal life."
According to one paper that Dr. Schieman has done, workers with job autonomy and schedule-control feel less pressured, while those with job authority and challenging work feel more pressured.
Employers should integrate flexibility into their policies and practices to minimize personal-to-work conflict, and limit the time employees are expected to respond to work-related communications after hours, he says. "In some workplaces, it's okay to check out and not have work continue 24/7."
Bev McPhee, vice-president of customer experience for ISM Canada, says that knowledge workers are especially less able to turn off their work. "It's an integrated profession," she explains, although rather than blaming technology, it's important to focus on personal management skills, values, choices and judgment. "Are we able to consciously make the right decisions to manage our lives?"
ISM, a company that has doubled in the past year to 900 employees and was selected as one of Canada's Top 100 Employers and Family-Friendly Employers for 2012 by Mediacorp Canada Inc., encourages self-autonomy among its staff, Ms. McPhee says.
This "entrepreneurial mindset" requires them to show self-initiative as well as "know when to unplug." Sometimes there are "culture clashes" and rules are necessary, she notes, for example in working with one client, ISM established a "no-fly zone" for work e-mails between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
In the opposite case, if there is too much personal business happening during work time, it could be that there are ebbs in workloads, or perhaps some employees need more "task-oriented environments," she says. "It does demand a high level of trust for your teams, in your management and with your customers; it's huge."
Jerome Shore, managing partner of the Coaching Clinic, a Toronto organization that does leadership, stress management and business development coaching, says it's important for people to use their time "correctly," both at work and in their personal lives. "When it's all working together you've got harmony, that's the best place to be," he says.
People often become overly engaged with work, because "we are slaves to the urgent," he says. "The in-basket is external motivation, it's other people putting priorities into your mindset. You have to create your own priorities."
Doing personal errands and chores during office hours can be distracting, and without "rejuvenating personal time," our work is not as productive as it could be, Mr. Shore adds.
He suggests that employees schedule down time, like regular date nights. Employers, meanwhile, should establish expectations, provide the right tools for staff and manage outcomes – rather than the process used to achieve them.
"You should treat people as adults and reward them for getting it done right," he says.
Mr. Delaney says this philosophy works well for ISM.
"We have built a culture based on trust and we find that that works," he says, explaining that the company offers flexibility. For example, under an "earned day-off agreement," most staff work longer, to cover ISM's nine daily service hours, but then they have every 10th day free.
Staff use the company's offices in Victoria and Vancouver as a "touch point," and rarely work there, which is to the company's benefit.
"People who work from home work more hours than in the office – that's the case for me," he says. "My day stretches out longer," which allows him to "organize different aspects of my life."
He holds a meeting of managers and team leaders by phone each day at 2 p.m. to see that everything is on track, and concentrates on performance management to evaluate staff.
"We set goals and keep the lines of communication open," he adds. "At the end of the day, we've got to get the work done."