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Monday, September 25, 2020

Fads, Fashions, and Work/Life Balance


Cornwall is a rural county in the far southwest of England. It has craggy cliffs, prehistoric megaliths, abandoned tin mines, and medieval villages. It is also about as remote from London and the normal haunts of business people as you can get in a very small island. Now the county is trying to attract more professional firms and high-tech industry to relocate, and it’s doing so, in part, by trading on the idea that creating work/life balance will be so much easier in a quiet, rural environment. It has even commissioned an on-line questionnaire to allow you to check out how balanced or unbalanced your current lifestyle is.

Life never stands still, so achieving any kind of balance between competing aspects of living is like walking a tightrope: you need to keep working at it or you’ll fall off.
This may seem an innocent piece of advertising, but it’s an example of how the concept of work/life balance is in danger from two fronts: from being turned into a fashionable marketing gimmick for everything from corporate relocation to dubious “get rich working from home” schemes; and from those organizations who treat it as a pure compliance issue. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of creating a level playing field for women who want to have a career and a family, but that isn’t only what work/life balance is about. It isn’t a once-for-all choice, it’s an activity, and one that usually demands hard choices.

Life never stands still, so achieving any kind of balance between competing aspects of living is like walking a tightrope: you need to keep working at it or you’ll fall off. Work/life balance is not a state you can enter, once and for all, whether by relocating your business to a rural area, or making sure people aren't penalized for wanting a normal family life. So I’m less than enchanted by all the “do these six things to create work/life balance” articles that are springing up. There aren’t six things to do, nor sixty. There’s just one, and it’s damned difficult: to focus on your true values and express them in your life at work and at home, every single day, pretty much regardless of the short-term consequences.

There aren’t six things to do, nor sixty. There’s just one, and it’s damned difficult: to focus on your true values and express them in your life at work and at home, every single day, pretty much regardless of the short-term consequences.
Work will almost always claim more and more of your time, if you let it. That’s the nature of working life. There is no obvious limit to the things that need to be done; no shortage of people who want results yesterday. There are deadlines to be met, and there is money to be made. Work can be fascinating and exciting. A big win on a project can give you a major buzz. It draws you in. In contrast, the demands of home and family—or even sensible health precautions, like getting enough sleep and taking time off to relax and unwind—tend to appear commonplace, even dull. It’s tempting to put them off; to reason that you can always spend time with the children next week, or make it up to your partner some other time, or catch up on rest after that major client’s presentation is over.

It would be tragic if something as important as how people live their lives—and we, as a society, place our collective values—is rendered trivial by a combination of marketing hype and the dead hand of corporate compliance and legalism.
Creating a work/life balance is all about values: deciding what truly matters in your life or organization—what comes first, even if it isn’t convenient and someone else is yelling blue murder about a deadline to be met or the risk of missing this quarter’s target. The compliance issues—having sensible arrangements for people who need to work part-time or have extra time off at certain stages in their life—should be commonsense expressions of those values in action. Something everyone wants to do because it’s right, not guidelines to be publicly espoused so long as they make the organization look good in PR terms—and quietly ignored later, if they get in the way of increased profits.

I’m sure you could have a really nice life in Cornwall, if that suited you (my sister lives there), but relocating yourself physically without changing anything else about the business, or the culture, or your personal life choices, won’t make the slightest bit of difference to your work/life balance, or anything else. It would be tragic if something as important as how people live their lives—and we, as a society, place our collective values—is rendered trivial by a combination of marketing hype and the dead hand of corporate compliance and legalism.

P.S. I gather the MBA students of Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, are walking the equivalent of the distance across Canada as part of the school’s commitment to instilling ideas of work/life balance. Bill Blake, Associate Dean of MBA Programs, is quoted as saying: "Success in the boardroom requires mental, physical, spiritual and emotional balance, and the Walk Across Canada, quite literally, puts Queen's MBA students many steps ahead of the competition." This is exactly what I mean by reducing work/life balance to something obvious that you think that you can do. It’s a great way to get fit, I’m sure, and everything Mr. Blake says is praiseworthy in itself, but is it work/life balance? Is it wrestling with expressing your true values and priorities on a day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year basis for the rest of your working life? I don’t think so.

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4 Comments:

John said...

Carmine, another great article.

You are spot on in saying that the VALUES have to change at a deep level. Changing what companies believe about the link between working hard and being productive (helping them realize that it's not just some straight line) will go a long way to getting REAL balance. I'm not as optimistic that we'll get them to change solely by showing that it is the right thing to do, though. But it's worth a shot!

It just doesn't seem that marketing pitches for "balance" will fool anyone who has an idea of what balance is. Maybe some poor guy who only knows that "hey, my life is out of balance" would go to a company based on a pitch like this, but not someone who actually has any kind of balance in his life.

9:05 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, John.

I hope you are right that not too many people will be fooled by marketing pitches. Sadly, it often seems that people fall for the simple, flashy options (even if they don't work) and miss the sensible ones. Then they feel cheated and reckon the whole topic is nonsense.

Keep reading, my friend.

4:16 PM  
Anonymous said...

CC,

Maybe one of the reasons work/life balance is so out of whack is because we work 5 days and 'rest' 2 days. Now, I know in the past it was necessary to work more days than relax, but in today's high tech world, where information takes less than a second to travel anywhere and food is plentiful, our lives seem 'less' complete than before we had all these 'riches'. I propose that the time has come to work 4 days, with 3 days off. That's a closer balance AND it's much more difficult to make work the center of your life when you have an extra day off. Yes, I want that extra day off. :D Great article!

Dan H

6:23 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Good point, Dan.

It's not so long ago (I remember it well), that pundits were forecasting a 2-day working week, because of the huge productivity gains possible through technology. The notion was that it would be better to allow everyone to work a shorter week, rather than have a few employed and most people with nothing to do.

What happened to that? I think no one really thought about human greed. We gained the productivity, but the gain went into massive increases in wealth for a small part of the world (and even there, to a very few people) and the rest were left out.

There's probably already sufficient productivity for nearly everyone to work a shorter week — provided that they accepted a rate of payment based on sharing wealth fairly evenly, not as it is handed out today.

You could have that shorter week, Dan, but only if your bosses and the shareholders were content with a little less money. Sadly, too many people prefer money to time.

Keep reading!

7:04 AM  

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