Friday, February 03, 2020

But How Can We Get Better...?

Work/Life balance is flavor of the month—probably because consulting firms reckon it's a potential bonanza for expensive work. Media articles, on and off-line, repeat the same points as survey after survey (almost all funded by consulting firms, it seems) report people are becoming tired of trying to fit their lives around ballooning work demands.

These surveys are strong on describing the problem, but rarely offer anything more. Take this example from a report of a survey commissioned by Key Group, a Pittsburgh, Penn. consulting firm:
Many companies simply don't have a culture that emphasizes work/life balance. There's a prevailing attitude among employers that employees are there to work and their personal life, or lack thereof, is irrelevant. Let me bluntly say that if you think this way, it will harm your company. Guaranteed.
Sadly, they have far less to say about how to do better—probably because they think the answer is obvious: hire the consulting firm.

The more important question is this: What can organizations do to improve work/life balance without losing out to less scrupulous competitors?

One answer is to trust employees more. For decades—probably for centuries—bosses have been working on the assumption the only way to get people to pay attention to their work is to keep them firmly in the workplace. Even "comfort breaks" have been regulated. Much of the resistance to allowing people to work from home stems from a concern they might not be working all the time, despite rationalizations about lack of team contact and social isolation. In the US, lunch-times are frequently reduced to 30 minutes or less: not enough time to get to a shop, or a pharmacy, or pick up the dry cleaning, let alone eat and relax as well. If all these domestic chores must be pushed into evening hours, it's no wonder families have little opportunity to sit down together for meals or conversation. People want more time to support and be with those they care about and to be involved in activities that matter to them; all the surveys show this. According to one survey:
…among all age groups, the opportunity for work/life balance was cited as the second most important recruitment/retention criterion. More than half(56%) of today's employees rate work/life balance as a key job selection criterion, with a roughly equal percentage of men (56%) andwomen (58%) listing "balance" as critical.
Surely what matters is completing the required work on time and to standard, not when during the day it gets done? If someone wants to take two hours in the middle of the day for a domestic activity, why should anyone be concerned? So long as that person fulfills his or her work obligations, when they do them is of no consequence.

Yet in the prevailing "command and control" mindset, it surely does matter. Employees, it seems, can be trusted to fight and die for their country, even vote for a government, but not to do what they're paid for, unless someone is watching them all the time. Does anyone watch the inhabitants of the executive suite to make sure they don't take an extra half hour at lunchtime? Are they expected to stay at their desks every moment between the official time for starting work and whenever their boss finally goes home?

In one organization I knew well, a new CEO made a habit of coming to work on Saturday mornings—and expected all the other senior and middle-managers to do the same. Most of them had no idea why they had to attend, but word went around that anyone found "missing" would be marked down as lacking in commitment and denied future promotion. So, every weekend, lines of managers came to work and sat at their desks wondering what to do. When the CEO left, usually around 12:30 p.m., there was a frantic rush for the parking lot. Was anything useful accomplished? No. Did a lot of families suffer disruption and lose valuable time to spend together? Of course.

So why did the CEO do it? He was a famous workaholic and operated on the tried-and-tested authoritarian principle that "what's good for me is good for all you underlings as well." Workaholics often believe working long hours equates to higher productivity and increases their value. Most actually exhibit poor time management, or can't trust anyone enough to delegate, which creates lower levels of productivity. As is typical for such people, this CEO's devotion to long hours didn't result in business success and he was fired in less than two years.

So much for the supposed benefits of a gargantuan work ethic.

The simplest way to get past a culture of uncivilized disregard for the human being in the workplace is the oldest: treat others as you want to be treated yourself. Can you be trusted to do a fair day's work for your salary? Of course you can. So why can't you trust others to be like you? Only jailers and auditors (is there always a difference?) demand people keep a strict account of every minute of their workplace "sentence."

Lighten up. Most people are honest to a fault. The few who aren't will quickly be found out—by their colleagues, probably. We all have lives to handle outside of work. It's time employers recognized the fact and stopped treating their workforce like naughty children. Success is defined in many ways, but almost never by how much or how little clock-time is devoted to work.

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Russell Crosswy said...

Interesting. I have been having some of the same thoughts you have. I like the sentence about employees seeming like "naughty children" to the higher-ups. When you think about it when you go from college to the "real world" it's like you went back to elementary school. You have to be at a certain place for a certain amount of time and follow a strict schedule. I thought we were given freedom in college so that we can learn to be independent?

I've been in charge of several school projects and the people on the team work when they can on their own time. You know what? I've seen those teams do a lot more in a week's time than I see some companies do in a month. Hmmmmm.... makes you wonder.

1:56 PM  
Kathleen Fasanella said...

I've been sitting on my hands as long as I can...there is a road, a journey towards satisfying the needs of everyone concerned. It's no secret, it's nothing magical but it takes a lot of learning and the application of integrity and commitment. I am continually dismayed at how few people know of the existance of this philosophy. It is called "Lean Manufacturing".

Practiced most adeptly by Toyota, it explains why Toyota is flush with cash, continuing to expand, building new plants, continually producing better products at great prices and still manages to pay their workers as well as any other automaker. The factory workers LOVE their jobs. Didn't you hear the audio series on NPR? Now Ford -on the other hand- is debt ridden, downsizing and losing market share. I've tried to tell people outside of manufacturing circles about "lean" (on sites like this one, thinking it's fertile ground) but I don't seem to get anywhere. I'd recommend the book "Lean Thinking" for a start. There are many lean blogs out there. Evolving Excellence may be a good one to explore for general lean topics.

On my site, I apply lean principles in apparel manufacturing. With lean, one can produce better quality products, pay one's workers fairly, manufacture in the US and still turn a tidy profit. Lean is not mean. In regular business practices, if a CEO oversees a downsizing (cost cutting), he gets a bonus. In lean manufacturing, lay-offs are virtually unheard of and it is a source of shame. Toyota has had one lay off in their history. Not only did the CEO not get a bonus, the CEO resigned for his abject failure. It was very shameful.

We need for people in the broader community to know about Lean. I do not believe US industry will retain whatever tiny edge it has without the application of lean principles in the future. I am hoping you will seriously endeavor to learn about it and spread the word. We need general practitioners to disseminate the knowledge, not just manufacturers.

No, it's not dramatic and implemented overnight. It takes time, dedication and commitment. The good thing is you can do it yourself. You can own the process. You don't need to hire some expensive high-falutin' consultant either.

6:27 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...


Thanks so much for your comment. I will investigate Lean Manufacturing right away. If it is, as you say, a way forward, people need to know more about it. Perhaps the name puts people off: it sounds like something that only applies in a manufacturing/production environment.

Anyway, thanks again for your input. Be assured I shall make the best use of it that I can. And please don't sit on your hands again. You clearly have a lot to offer and I shall always be more than happy to listen.

8:13 PM  
Stefano Turri said...

Lean thinking ideas have been circulating for some time in the software development community, directly inspiring "Lean Software Development" (, one of the many existing agile methodologies.

All Agile methodologies share a strong focus on people related issues, such as trust, time management, client relationship;
for example, one of these methodologies, eXtreme Programming, has an explit rule of a 40 hour week.

The common principles of Agile have been summarized in the Agile Manifesto (

11:01 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Stefano

I'm investigating the lean thinking/Agile topic and will post about it when I have a better understanding.

7:15 PM  

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