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new world work hours 24/7, almost literally

Wednesday 25 July, 2007

Time-zone shifters caught in loop

Workday never ends when you must deal with business cycles from around the world

It’s Sunday dinner in the Khanna family’s spotless three-bedroom condo, and the matriarch, Ritu, is happy. She munches a spicy stew of cauliflower, carrots and peas with her husband, Vivek, and their teenage son, Kanishka. She and Vivek swap memories of growing up in Calcutta and sip chardonnay.

Daylight slips away. Then, so does her husband.

“There it starts,” she says.

Vivek sits up a little straighter. His BlackBerry begins to buzz more frequently. He seems ready to spring from the table.

That’s because his attention is shifting to another place and time: Mumbai, nearly 9,000 miles away. There, it’s just before 9 a.m. Monday, 12 1/2 hours ahead of California, and he can imagine his colleagues at the back-office outsourcing company he works for filing into the office, turning on their computers, chatting about their weekends.

They will soon want to talk with Khanna, the company’s U.S. director of business development, about processing payroll forms, health-care claims and accounting vouchers. They might have leads to help him drum up more clients.

The 40-year-old multitasker will take their calls and e-mail from a desk in his garage, where he sits wedged between a foosball table and some bicycles, until 11 p.m. He will wake up to resume work before 5 a.m. so he can catch the end of the Indian workday.

“If you look at it,” he said, “I’m never at work, and I’m never off work.”

Khanna is a new breed of globalized worker, testing the limits of international commerce, his body and his family’s patience. It is an often overlooked side effect of sending jobs overseas: Work spread across many time zones demands that managers and co-workers attune to the world’s business cycle while living out of sync with those around them.

“It’s the sun-never-sets model,” said Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at Basex Inc., a business research firm in New York.

His company estimates that about half of the 46 million so-called knowledge workers in the U.S., a category that covers anyone whose primary job is to work with information, are engaged in some kind of time-zone shifting, extending the day beyond the normal 9 to 5.

Technology makes it all possible. Workers and managers can brainstorm, strategize and review via e-mail, instant messaging, cheap Internet-based phone calls and online videoconferencing.

Time-zone shifting means knowing that if you arranged your schedule to accommodate business in India, then dealing with Shanghai isn’t that much harder. Just add an extra 2 1/2 hours to your day.

Tacking on Japan, however, can be brutal, especially for a self-described “morning guy.” It’s only an hour later, Khanna said, but “the peak comes before dinner and goes through midnight.” He knows people who deal daily with India and Europe, plus clients in the U.S. It’s a killer combination, providing no predictable daily downtime.

“They have three eight-hour shifts,” he said, laughing.

One can get lost trying to figure out who’s where and what time it is there. From his office in the Silicon Valley, Alok Aggarwal, chairman of Evalueserve, a research and analysis firm, once miscalculated the time difference and missed a conference call with Tel Aviv. He thought the 9 p.m. appointment was at 9 a.m.

“I felt terrible for a couple of days,” he said.

His life’s “time complexity,” as he calls it, increased in September when the company, which has offices in New Delhi and Shanghai, added Chile. Setting up conference calls requires negotiation. Whose turn is it to get up at 4 a.m.? Last year, Aggarwal hung three extra clocks in his office: one for New York, one for India and one for Austria, where Evalueserve’s chief executive lives.

Many time-zone shifters erase all boundaries between work and life, never wanting customers or co-workers with urgent needs to feel they are not around or can’t be bothered. They sleep with their cell phones, Treos and BlackBerrys near their pillows.

Ritu Khanna tries to inject some balance into husband Vivek’s globalized workday. She has caught him checking his BlackBerry e-mail in the bathroom in the middle of the night. When the telephone rings at 3 a.m., Vivek is able to bounce awake on the first ring and strike a professional tone.

“Some country is awake all the time,” Ritu often tells him in a teasing voice. “When do we get to sleep?”

mm comment: I”ve lived this life when I was doing virtual international business development in Williams Bay, WI (pop 2100) for Computer Mail Services. I’d call Europe in the a.m. until 11:00, then across the Atlantic calling Latin America through the afternoon. @ night I’d be calling Asia & work my way westward until I was calling India before I went to bed. It’s the new reality. With cheap international telecom, e-mail, webex, etc., it’s possible to do business anywhere as long as the client is awake & available. It still feels a little weird to talk with someone for whom it’s already tomorrow. That just seems to be a strange time/space continuim.

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