Monday, May 29, 2020

The Work/Life Balance Bandwagon

In Great Britain, both major political parties have jumped on the “let’s improve work/life balance” bandwagon. The leader of the opposition Conservative party began it, closely followed by a spokesperson for the Labour government. When politicians take notice of something, it usually means they think there are votes to be won. In this case, I suspect it also means that, in Britain at least, the topic is prominent enough amongst the public at large for the politicians to be afraid they’ll lose out if they seem not to have heard of it.

David Cameron, the opposition leader, must have been on a personal “road to Damascus.” Here’s an excerpt from his recent speech:
Well-being can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It can't be required by law or delivered by government. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, and above all the strength of our relationships.

Improving our society's sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times. It's a challenge foreshadowed by one of Britain's most famous economists - though not someone whose work I usually agree with. Writing in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now, society would have "solved its economic problem" - that is, worked out how to create permanently rising standards of living.

In his essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, he argued: "For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem - how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well."
So far so good. But, like most executives, commentators and other pundits, Cameron quickly moves onto “safe,” structural ground like better facilities for women who work and raise a family, more opportunities for flexible hours, and the benefits of working from home.

I’m not decrying any of these. They’re all useful. In a civilized workplace, nothing should be present that discriminates against women — or anyone else. But they’re ways to deal with symptoms of macho, “grab’n go” management, not methods to set right the causes. What truly makes a difference is the attitude of top management. Plenty of organizations have paper provisions for flexible working, shorter hours, job-sharing and support for working mothers. It all looks fine — but heaven help anyone who takes advantage of what’s on offer. They’re swiftly marked down as “not committed” or “not executive material,” or “more interested in family than work.”

We won’t solve the work/life balance problem — nor any of the other issues that make work uncivilized and oppressive — until there is a real change in values; and everyone — from the CEO and the shareholders to the newest employee — believes that work is about more than making profits.

Looking good on paper is the first resort of those who want to appear to acknowledge some public concern without making any significant change. That’s usually politicians, command-and-control business leaders and PR flacks. Real leaders know that looking good on paper means nothing unless it’s the result of determined actions, not a replacement for them.

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