The curse of the BlackBerry

Creating an epidemic of BlackBerry dependency may serve short-term business interests. But the trouble is one day the addicts might just fight back.

Although he's supposed to be on holiday, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown admits his BlackBerry will remain on as he wanders pensively along the North Sea shore at Southwold.

Perhaps it's forgivable for a prime minister to feel the need to remain in constant touch with the office. But how many people do you know who have they holidays spoiled by work emails and calls? Or more mundanely how many people do you know who check their BlackBerrys and email out of office hours?

That issue may not seem particularly problematic. But as the part of the organization that usually owns these tools we are potentially sitting on a huge area of risk.

Contracts of employment never seem to include provisions about BlackBerrys and when a worker should or should not respond. Increasingly workers are hooked and the CrackBerry habit is eating into personal time and creating an awkward imbalance in people's lives.

I'm no expert in contract or employment law but I am certain companies are implicitly encouraging if not requiring employees at all levels to work out of hours and to be responsible for responding to queries no matter where they are or what they are doing.

It takes only one disgruntled employee to find solid grounds to sue over this imposition for the whole fabric of our mobile working community to come tumbling down.

As CIOs, we must act to protect our organizations and our employees from what is becoming an epidemic.

Organizations must start to develop standards and guidelines for out-of-hours use of devices such as BlackBerrys and other remote working tools.

They must also explicitly state what is expected of employees who use these devices and whether their compensation includes out-of-hours access.

By ignoring the issue companies are increasing their liability to claims and sending mixed messages to employees who have a right to personal time outside work, free from interruption or distraction.

As a self-confessed BlackBerry obsessive, I cannot claim to have found the balance my friends and family deserve. But at least I find myself in this situation through personal choice. I'm not sure all staff would see it the same way.

Also, evaluating performance of staff is often partly based on attitude and commitment, which can be misinterpreted to mean accessibility. One employee might always be available while another chooses not to respond out of hours. Preferring one employee to the other on that basis is understandable but it is a dangerous precedent to set.

We must manage the convenience and mobility offered by modern tools responsibly, to make sure they are used appropriately. That responsibility includes establishing when not to use them. Ignorance has never been an excuse for anything and cannot be used as an excuse for exploiting workers and their personal lives.

I have attended many symposiums on mobility and even spoken at a couple on this very issue over the past few years. Yet no company I know has created a policy on out-of-hours use of BlackBerrys.

As mobility becomes more advanced and services such as unified messaging and other technologies keep evolving, this issue will only become more pronounced.

As responsible CIOs we should address this question now. As an industry we should set out to define acceptable standards of conduct and use for BlackBerrys and other mobile email devices.