Smartphone, computer access has power to change 40-hour workweek

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Three quarters of a century after the Fair Labor Standards Act gave American workers a minimum wage, established child labor laws and required companies to pay full-time workers overtime after they've worked a 40-hour week, tablets and smartphones have become 24-hour work stations for many, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The bureau's 2012 report, "The Hard Truth About Telecommuting," noted 24 percent of Americans said they work at least some hours from home.

An analysis of two separate surveys showed telecommuters work an average of five to seven additional hours from home -- and the majority of those hours are overtime.

"We find that telecommuting has not extensively permeated the American workplace ... [but] where it has become commonly used, it is not unequivocally helpful in reducing work-family conflicts. Instead, telecommuting appears to have become instrumental in the general expansion of work hours," reads a portion of the bureau's report summary.

Although technology use is padding work hours, it is only the beginning of a widespread cultural change toward a new "flexible" work week, said Anthony Davies, associate professor of economics in Duquesne University's business school.

"The Internet and other technology is enabling more and more workers to work from home, and once they can do that, the focus moves away from how many hours is an employee sitting in a chair to how many jobs can they get done," he said.

While there's little question American companies are able to extend telework, how willing they are to make the move en-masse varies widely. Organizations ranging from Facebook to the Department of Defense have opened the door for increased telework over the past few years, but at the same time Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer nixed the company's work-from-home policy, saying the practice hurt company productivity.

Whether a company has an official policy or not, workers can still use technology to ease the burden of a 40-hour week, said Danyelle Little, St. Louis-based founder of online magazine and author of the eBook "Shine: 10 Tips for Effective Work Life Balance." Ms. Little, who began providing career advice to working parents in 2009, said employees are often their own worst enemies when it comes to extending the work day through handheld gadgets.

"Since tablets are small, they're often used in bed. This can cause people to work when they should be resting," she wrote in an email message.

She suggested making the bedroom a "blackout zone" for work and scheduling regular downtime from home assignments.

She added that technology offers solutions to free workers from, well, technology. Teleworkers can install timer programs and apps to clock how long they've been working.

Products such as Jacksonville, Fla.-based Retina X Studio's PeekTab software -- normally marketed to help parents keep tabs on children -- and Westport, Conn.-based Awareness Technologies' WebWatcher monitor website visits, searches, emails, chats and several other operations, providing users with searchable reports of activity.

If used properly, Ms. Little thinks technology can make the 30-, 20- or 15-hour work week a normal part of American life.

"Technology isn't the bad guy here. It's the way we use technology that causes issues for work life balance," she said.

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Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652.


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