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One of the more memorable presentations that I attended during the time I worked for an international corporation was a lunch-and-learn on work-life balance. The top 50 senior executives of the company were giving the same PowerPoint presentation in meeting rooms across the organization. The executive vice-president for our region (male, early 60s, who had worked for the company for more than 35 years) slogged his way through the prepared slide pack that he had been presenting all week. He punctiliously read the bullet points to a disengaged crowd of predominantly young graduates who were munching sandwiches and discreetly checking messages on their handhelds.
The memorable bit had nothing to do with the predictable content; it was when we got to a slide which depicted work-life balance as the “state of equilibrium between the demands of work versus the right for an employee to have a satisfying personal life outside of the business environment.” A hand shot up and a young 20-something audience member interrupted his flow with this question. “What if your work gives you so much satisfaction that it is part of who you are?” He looked at her blankly. “I’m with you there,” somebody else piped up. “Sometimes I get all my best ideas at two in the morning. What’s to stop me working on the project and coming into the office a bit later?” The audience stirred. And then the killer question came from somewhere at the back. “If you believe so much in work-life balance, why did you hold this business presentation during my lunch break?” The C-suite executive looked dourly at the congregation and said, “I’ll be taking questions at the end” and clicked the next slide. That killed that.
The short flurry of questions, and the attitude in which they were dealt with, revealed some intriguing incongruences around the nature of work-life balance that was clearly felt in the room, but notably absent from the slide pack.
1. Function versus meaning.
The presentation was treating work-life-balance as an algorithm for contracted hours, policies and the consequences for work productivity for those unable to switch off. In strictly functional terms, work-life balance is an issue of scheduling — one where workers unplug from work and plug into life. The new generation of workers tend to view this as a false dichotomy where work is not seen as a quantifiable measure, but a meaningful life choice. Dave Ulrich, professor of business at the University of Michigan, said in an interview with the Bangkok Post, that for this demographic, “Work is not just about performing tasks, but about finding meaning.” It seems they want to have a life-work, not work-life, experience — a state of “flow” as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it — where borders dissolve, and they become so absorbed in their work that it defines their very being.
2. Baby boomer presentism versus millennial flexibility.
Our presenter was part of the baby boomer generation, 1946-1964. The oldest of the 79 million baby boomers reached 65 in 2011, and the youngest will get there by 2029, meaning that this generation’s leadership era will continue into the 2030s. This post-war generation are quintessential workaholics, tending to put their careers before their family and believing in workplace structure, visibility and hard work. This goes some way toward explaining the mixed messages on work-life-balance that you tend to get from a baby boomer boss. They are loyal to their company and will present the corporate line on work-life balance, but in the back of their minds, they are most likely thinking that a bit of hard work and sacrifice never harmed anybody.
Millennials, on the other hand, tend to focus on output rather than input. They seem to have a better understanding of their productivity cycle and don’t feel they should be chained to the desk. They are more likely to connect with global colleagues at unsociable hours and do all-nighters to complete projects. But in return, they want flexibility and time off during core working hours to catch up with their lives. If baby boomers believe in presentism, millennials want to be trusted to make up their own hours, work to their productivity cycle and take time off in lieu of compensation for the hours they put in outside of the formal 9-5 structure. This often puts them in in conflict with baby boomers who see millennials as the slacker generation.
3. Self versus other.
Another unvoiced question in these presentations is where should the scale tip in this complex balancing act between organization and employee? The lunch-and-learn presentation seemed to suggest that work-life balance is something employees need to figure out. Germany and France see things differently and regulate work-life balance at the company, or even the national level, forcing employees to switch off. In 2011, Volkswagen deactivated emails available on Blackberry devices 30 minutes after an employee’s shift ended to give staff a complete break. BMW, Puma and the German Labor Ministry followed suit. Earlier this year, a French employment law came into being stating that workers have the “right to disconnect.” Not surprisingly, both countries are featured in the “Top 10 Better Life Countries for Work-Life Balance” in the OECD Better Life Index.
It begs the question, how much is work-life balance a means of control where “life” comes at the cost of embracing fixed work patterns? “Don’t put the quality of your life in the hands of a commercial corporation,” cautions author Nigel Marsh in his TED talk “How to Make Work-Life Balance Work.” He reasons that we should be “setting the boundaries of our own life.” Lizzie Penny, writing in the The Guardian, views work-life balance in terms of corporate imprisonment. “Large organizations embrace a fixed regime of regimented hours and a single office space because it enables them to retain control over their workforce. Big businesses that allow employees to work from home on Wednesdays, leave early on a Friday, or work a four-day week are not offering true flexibility, they are merely extending the leash.”
Toward a better fit. Six strategies for making work-life balance work.
Clearly there is an issue with people working long work hours. The aforementioned OECD Better Life Index shows that at least three of the G7 countries, the United States, U.K. and Japan, all work long hours. The direct consequences of this “always on” culture was outlined in a recent study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience showing that people who can’t detach themselves from work are more at risk for negative health issues and have an increased risk of disease. The all-too-often solution of giving generic PowerPoint presentations telling employees that they need to do a better job in segregating work from life simply throws up other deeper dichotomies around meaning, generational difference and organizational responsibility and control.
The next time the issue of work-life balance crops up on the leadership team agenda, take a more systemic approach by focusing on these six strategic approaches for making work-life balance work:
- Ditch the generic presentations, and encourage an honest and open dialogue with employees about hitting the right balance between organizational needs and an individual’s health, cycle of productivity, meaning and family. Focus on finding a work-life fit.
- Give your employees genuine choice to work to their productivity cycle and not a binary predefined either/or formula.
- Judge employees on output not input.
- Review the covert operant conditioning in your organization that rewards and promotes presentism, perfectionism and hyperconnectivity.
- Stop making work-life balance a way out for bad leaders. If a supervisor in the organization expects employees to work unreasonable hours, then don’t call this a work-life balance issue. Call it what it is — lousy leadership.
- Avoid hypocrisy. Don’t tell staff how much you care about their welfare whilst increasing workloads and dispatching emails at unsociable hours encouraging hyperconnectivity.