I have a bunch of different opinions about work-life balance. At one level, I think it’s a total crock of shit that should be re-branded about 1,927 times over. When I think that way about work-life balance, here’s the deal: it’s total buzzword by this point and it allows everyone to start kneeling in the altars at The Temple Of Busy as they claim achieving work-life balance is impossible. OMG!
There’s another side of me that thinks work-life balance could actually be a strategic advantage for companies, although admittedly it would require a new way of thinking about the term or concept — and anytime you combine the word “companies” with “new way of thinking,” you’re already basically trying to walk an elephant out onto a twig and hope it doesn’t snap. Companies don’t often think in new ways unless bankruptcy is bearing down on ’em. They might think about new things — chasing shiny nickels, in other words — but that doesn’t mean they often think about things in new ways.
Alright, so … back to work-life balance. Where should we stand on it?
Work-life balance: Some contextual background
Here’s an article on Harvard Business Review from Scott Behson, who appears to be a management professor at FDU and has written a book about surviving being a working dad. (Pretty much vetted.) The focus of the article is work-life balance, and there’s a cool section near the middle where he talks about Ryan, LLC — that’s a company — and what they’ve done in this space:
It accomplished this transformation with a constellation of changes over a decade, but the central intervention was its new performance evaluation system. Instead of infrequent, subjective evaluations based largely on “time on task,” Ryan now has managers, employees, and teams develop a set of agreed-upon performance metrics that are consistently tracked. As long as these metrics are met and customers and coworkers are happy with their access to employees, managers at Ryan generally do not track office hours. Once Ryan made the change, some employees who had been receiving high ratings by working 70 hours weeks were revealed to have been less productive than many who worked fewer but more efficient hours. Turnover plummeted; satisfaction, engagement, and financial performance soared.
Couple of things to pull from there:
- Up near the top it says “constellation of changes over a decade,” right? That says to me that: (a) work-life balance takes a lot of friggin’ time to begin to get right, and (b) work-life balance isn’t the result of some sweeping gesture or speech by an exec at an all-hands meeting — it’s based on a lot of other things changing in concert or around it.
- “Some employees who had been receiving high ratings by working 70 hour weeks were revealed to have been less productive…” LOL. Yep. This is the cubicle world in a nutshell. Some dickbag Type-A backslapper rushes past you bellowing about how he didn’t eat lunch that day because of how slammed he is, and you know in that instant … that guy will be your boss in 17 months. It happens without fail. We fucking adore seat time. It’s everything to most managers.
Work-life balance: The dirty little secrets
Let’s start with a couple of notions around “productivity” and “happiness,” OK?
- Research keeps proving that 55 hours/week is pretty much a hard ceiling in terms of effective work
- Research also keeps proving that happiness is based much more on time and experiences than on money
- In fact, research has also shown that only about 1 in 10 Americans can balance ‘being busy’ and ‘being happy’
So… here’s where we net out based on those three things: you shouldn’t work super hard in terms of quantity, chasing that dollar isn’t gonna make you that much happier, and chasing that dollar + being busy won’t balance well with your real, personal life.
This all ties to work-life balance.
Here are a couple of dirty little secrets that I think a lot of us kind of know, but no one really discusses broadly:
- ROWE: That stands for Results-Only Work Environment. A couple of companies have tried this, notably Best Buy. The system is basically — look, you have tasks. You need to achieve those results. If you achieve them in 15 hours and go home, cool. You’ll still get paid for 40. The results matter, not the time put in. Literally every single company that has tried ROWE has abandoned it within a year. Why? Because businesses only claim that results matter. To a lot of people, politics and processes matter way more than results. This comes from a place where organizational priority is broadly unclear (happens in many companies) and, as a result, everyone concerns themselves with petty personal bullshit and politics — because hell, what’s the point of this job anyway? Oh yea, a paycheck and the chance to shit on others!
- Seat time and tracking: Again, managers love seat time as a “metric” for how productive or successful someone is, even though there’s virtually no correlation between the two and most cubicle jockeys are chasing Facebook instead of Excel. Here’s the real dirty little secret here, and it’s one that will broadly doom businesses that try to compete on “data” without having personnel who understand data. Most managers rush around bellowing that “what’s measured is what matters!” In reality, almost no managers have any clue how to tie measured things (analytics) back to decision-making. “Fuck these metrics, Tom! I’ll rely on my gut!” What managers actually mean when they say “what’s measured is what matters” is this: “Whatever the easiest fucking thing I can see out of my office is what I’ll measure, and that will subsequently matter to me.” That’s where seat time became important. It’s easy to track, so we track it. You have a bunch of seat time? You’re a warrior. Leaving early to take care of your family? You can’t be counted on. Seat time is a joke, but it only rose up as a performance indicator because it makes things easier for managers. Simple as that.
- Definition of success: Many people define their self-worth via their job, which is a dangerous spot to get into because companies have no moral or ethical obligation to even give the remotest fuck about you when stuff starts hitting the fan. It’s probably more true of men to think this way, because society tends to tell women “your job is to have and raise a family.” Also, men can’t have kids and that’s a whole fucking thing in terms of how we think about our goals and successes. OK. So what I’m saying here is … we all secretly know that work is pretty much a giant exercise in throwing turds over a fence at your co-workers and making sure nothing is on your plate for longer than 30 minutes, but we still don’t have a better definition of success than long hours, big money, corner offices, nice houses, etc. When we move “success” to mean “comes home at 4pm, relaxes, hangs out with children” instead of “answers hair on fire e-mail via urgent client need,” then we can have a more realistic discussion on work-life balance. Because that “urgent client need” culture still defines to many how relevant they themselves are, work-life balance has a long way to go.
Work-life balance: How do we do it right?
Basically, it’s simple in theory but tough in execution. If you want strong work-life balance at the individual level, well, prioritize your whole self and well-being over simply the needs of your work. Leave stuff on the table and go home. Seek that ‘Four-Way Win.’
At an organizational level, work-life balance requires this thought flow:
- We hire people and pay them some money that we’d probably rather keep for our bonuses.
- These people have lives outside of this place and need to attend to those.
- The goal of work at the most basic level is productive achievement of goals.
- Because people are different, those goals will take different amounts of time to achieve for each person.
- If a person can achieve their goals in 10 hours as opposed to 40 and wants those extra hours for him/herself, that’s fine.
- Why is that fine? Because the goals were achieved, and that was the point. The point wasn’t making sure he/she was around the next 30 hours.