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Is it OK to switch off from work?

By Nick Easen for CNN
Would you ignore a call, email or SMS from your boss?

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Global Office
Microsoft Corporation
Technology (general)

(CNN) -- PDAs, 3G mobile phones, broadband connections at home, wireless access in hotels and airport lounges -- there is no reason not to be in touch with the office 24/7.

New technology now enables flexible working hours around the clock, but some are beginning to feel the strain from vague expectations about how available they should be.

It does not help either if a company has employees in different time zones working on the same projects, in real time.

It has got to the stage where Microsoft has even issued guidance to its UK employees on when they should disconnect from the Internet at home or turn off their mobile phones.

"The provision of a smart phone in no way requires users to either view or respond to business related emails or calls out of office hours," Steve Harvey, Director of People and Culture at Microsoft told CNN.

"Individuals are not skilled in setting the boundaries between work and home (and) colleagues fail to respect other's rights to free time."

The smart phones allow employees to get e-mails and documents from their tablet PC and reply using the phone keypad, as well as manage diaries and contacts -- they were developed with Orange and Motorola.

The guidelines were issued after a six-month trial, when 443 Microsoft employees were given smart phones, tablet PCs and broadband Internet access in their homes.

Although work productivity went up, there were calls from staff for "clarity of expectations" and an "agreed etiquette" from management as to when work ended and when home life began.

"There is a problem with (work) encroaching on home life, if the individual does not manage it and set the boundaries," said Harvey.

"You may never get quiet time for reflection away from emails and the phone, if you do not take positive steps to be in control of both your time and the technology."

Microsoft now runs programs for its staff aimed specifically at ensuring that people take control of their own work-life balance.

Yet to get flexibility

While some employees are already using the latest technology to achieve a better work-life balance, some are not.

A recent UK survey of 600 businesses by mobile operator O2 found that although many employees had signed up for flexible working practices -- including working from home -- it had yet to become reality.

In total 62 percent of businesses are only partially improving or introducing flexible working "despite UK firms making a £9.9 billion ($18.1 billion) investment in mobile technology."

One of the key factors attributed to this failure was a lack of communication between Human Resources and IT and this prevented flexible working practices from being properly rolled out.

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