Blackberry rollout stalled over work/life balance debate

Workplace opposition to after-hours contact

A federal government department stalled the distribution of a new fleet of BlackBerries following fears the devices would have a negative impact on the work/life balance of staff.

The Blackberries were purchased for the Minister for Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts, Peter Garrett, as well as 40 other executives including senior departmental staff.

However, access to the new devices was delayed after concerns were expressed about the BlackBerries infringing on the work/life balance of staff.

According to a source within the department, who requested anonymity, there are a number of government decision-makers that believe executive staff should rarely be contacted after-hours and if necessary can be contacted by mobile phone.

Staff expressed fears about BlackBerries contributing to a longer working day and felt it was going a step too far because mobile phones are adequate for out-of-office contact.

Not everyone agreed, however, with some senior executives claiming a BlackBerry can contribute to work/life balance by facilitating telecommuting and more flexible schedules.

According to the source debate became so heated there was talk of completely withdrawing the devices. However, a spokesperson for the department confirmed they will not be withdrawn but confirmed the recent purchase of 40 BlackBerries.

"There has been a recent purchase to add to our existing fleet and to update the department's older BlackBerries; this was necessary to allow each handset to have the ability for full e-mail classification," she said.

"They were purchased to ensure compliance with the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) e-mail classification guidelines."

The spokesperson pointed out that mobile phones are adequate for voice but not e-mail communication.

It isn't the first time mobile devices have been at the centre of workplace debate with a survey released earlier this year showing one-third of respondents believe a mobile device can increase workloads. Released by the Solutions Research Group, the survey was undertaken by users of BlackBerries, Palm Treos and other PDAs and smart phones.

The survey supports research from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) which shows that since 1980 working hours in Australia have continued to increase. Currently, Australia has the second longest working hours in the OECD.

Despite this the federal government is keen to accelerate the teleworking trend by establishing the Australian Telework Advisory Committee (ATAC).

The committee released a report this year examining ways to faciliate a more flexible workplace and to promote the benefits of teleworking.

As part of its work/life balance policy, the Australian Computer Society (ACS) wants the federal government to push teleworking and a more flexible working day built around core hours of 10am to 3pm.

ACS president Philip Argy said the government needs to act to address skills shortages and an ageing workforce.

Red Rock Consulting associate director of support, Dianne Phelan, said flexibility is the most important cultural value of the workplace.

"Management has to be flexible so part-time staff can work earlier or later, or work from home if it is feasible, otherwise business just loses staff," she said.

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