Sense in working overtime: long hours in the construction of identity and career progression of IT specialists

Martin, Ian (2006). Sense in working overtime: long hours in the construction of identity and career progression of IT specialists. In: Computers in use: historical and social perspectives conference, 22-23 Jul 2006, Manchester, UK.



Computing history is full of near-mythical tales of superhuman efforts to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to engineer hardware, develop software and launch businesses. These efforts frequently appear to have involved working very long hours amid difficult circumstances. This heroic myth is one that still resonates strongly today with the IT sector in the UK and the US very much characterised by a culture of long working hours.

In an attempt to uncover what structures support and sustain these long hours, this paper reports the findings from a year long ethnographic study of fifteen IT specialists who were employed by a large UK financial institution in the lead up to the year 2000. The impact of the work undertaken to find the ‘Millennium Bug’ and initiatives from both inside and outside the organisation to reduce the long hours’ culture, including the European Union’s Working Time Directive, are examined.

The findings indicate that although this organisation had certainly made some high-profile attempts to reduce incidences of long hours working, the efficacy of these efforts was questionable. Long hours were still entwined, and indeed often subtly promoted, within the IT specialists’ sub-culture. Managers and the Human Resources department appeared to send out confusing and contradictory messages. IT specialists, and their partners, were often publicly rewarded for working long hours while others were penalised for doing the same. The performance management system valued those working on high-profile projects, with work on these projects often a key factor in gaining promotion. Yet due to a legacy handed down by the ‘profession’, the organisational sub-culture, and poorly considered workplace design, this work invariably required the commitment of sustained long hours amid difficult circumstances. As Human Resources tried to drive through the principles of the Working Time Directive formally, or informally through initiatives such as Work Smarter Not Harder and Go Home On Time days, the unanticipated consequences of their actions presented the IT specialists with a stress-laden dichotomy.

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