Applying the theory of work-life balance: does it really hold up in the real world?
This is not going to be a popular White Paper with many people. I will not tell you why yet, but for the critics (and everyone else), I promise that, if nothing else, it will give you something to consider as your career moves forward and you find yourself making some pivotal life choices. My goal in going against popular opinion here is to point out that every life choice you make brings consequences. Consequences that will ultimately influence where you end up in both your life and your career.
MY BEEF WITH THE SYMBIOTIC WORK-LIFE PHILOSOPHY
As a recruiter, I often get questions about my client’s thoughts on work-life balance. That is a common topic, so common that it has almost lost its meaning. To most people, I think it represents an employer’s awareness and respect for the boundary between personal and professional life.
WILL MY EMPLOYER EXPECT ME TO WORK WEEKENDS?
WILL MY EMPLOYER EXPECT ME TO WORK EVENINGS?
CAN I TAKE TIME OFF TO TAKE MY KID TO THE DOCTOR?
The problem with work-life balance is that it is a moving target that looks different to every person. In this discussion, let me first spend a few minutes looking at the ambiguities that are involved in answering any question about work-life balance and then, in a very real world way, explain how a false understanding of an employer’s perspective of the topic can affect your career. From that we will reach some interesting conclusions about how companies actually evaluate their employees. These conclusions may come as a surprise.
- Does an employer have an expectation for some weekend effort on a special project?
What if 1 of 4 team members on that project will not commit to weekend time because of family or personal issues? Should the entire team delay the project? Should they cover for the absent person on the weekend? How would you resolve that as a boss?
- If you leave work at 5 PM, should you get emails from work on your smart phone and should you be required to answer them during the evening?
How about emergencies only? What is an emergency? Is that even definable? Who defines it? What if you get an email that is not expected to be answered till the next day? Is that an intrusion?
- Is it OK for you to leave work at 3PM to take your child to the doctor or to attend their basketball game?
If yes, what about a co-worker with no children who wants to leave at 3PM to go to a movie matinee? If not, why not? How about a co-worker’s cat and a vet trip?
I think you can see that this is a murky world and the underlying complexities put a burden on employers to make value decisions for their staff. Consider the last example of leaving early for your child versus leaving early for other personal reasons. If it is not OK for a childless co-worker to take similar time off for a non-family event that is a value laden employer decision that favors employees with families. I am not saying that either decision is a right or wrong decision. I am saying that any decision is a value decision about the life part of work-life balance. The answer affects people in different ways.
Make Sure You Can See the Forest Through the Trees
Many people who ask about work-life balance only see it through their own eyes and their own values. That is why employers hate the work-life questions and respond with clichés. It has no answer. One person’s optimal work-life balance equation may be another’s sloth or grind. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have single person with no children ask about work-life balance in an interview with the perspective that he or she is sick of doing everyone else’s work while they are all at ballet recitals?
Basically, employers try to put the balance point somewhere reasonable, with expectations changing depending on project or workflow circumstances. The exact location of the balance point varies from company to company but, to me, it is a narrow bell curve with 90% of employers bunched near the same location.
However, here is where it gets tricky. Don’t kid yourself. As an employee, a focus on the life side of work-life balance will have possibly unpleasant ramifications for you. The reality is that work-life balance from an employer standpoint holds some serious weight. Some scenarios to consider:
- You work in a department of 5 people. The department manager will be retiring in 2 years. There are two people with the experience and smarts to be promoted. One has traditionally been willing to work weekends and evenings. The other, not so much. If you promote the person willing to put in the hours, is that penalizing the other? Or, if you ignore the contribution of the extra hours, are you punishing that person for some reason? Please note that I have not identified the personal, family situation of either person. Shouldn’t that be irrelevant?
- Same department and the same 5 people but the other side of the coin- layoffs coming. All things being equal, do you ignore the extra effort put it by the one employee?
- Let’s reconsider the 4 person project team we mentioned earlier. Let’s assume that at the end of the project the team gets a bonus. Three team members have a work skewed definition of work-life balance and only one is skewed towards life. Please tell me what to do with that bonus if 1 of the 4 team members only contributes during a 5 day work week and the others contribute on a 7 day work week?
The issue around work-life balance is often not as clear cut as it may appear, obviously. In fact, most companies have a reasonably fair view of an employee’s private life. They will intrude only when necessary and try to avoid it becoming institutionalized. The true friction point lies elsewhere.
In the circumstance above in example Number 1, if you were an employer, who would you promote? In reality, you would promote the person who works the hardest. You would promote the person who can do the job best. Why wouldn’t you? Why shouldn’t you?
Every person gets to put the balance point of the work-life equation at a different location. Within reason, you usually have that personal latitude at your employer. With each balance point there is a tradeoff. Maybe you don’t want to trade leaving at 5PM to be home for dinner for an opportunity to be promoted but maybe someone else will make that tradeoff. Should that person not be allowed the same choice you are allowed because their equation balances at a different point than yours?
Candidly, the friction with work-life balance usually only becomes apparent when the life-centric decision tends to have costs to your career. Unless you marry the boss’s kid, the harder you work the higher you will rise. Yes, we all know of the brown-noser who gets a promotion but, in the span of a career, the people who put in the effort move up the company ladder. To think otherwise is to kid yourself.
I don’t mean this to sound harsh but many complaints about companies and their lack of appreciation for family life comes across as sour grapes. They often surface when someone else gets a promotion or raise because they have made a commitment of time and/or energy that the complainer did not. It comes across as, “I don’t want to work late and I don’t think you should want to work late either.” I think that is when the friction point appears. Remember junior high when no one liked the kid who raised his hand and who had all the answers to the teacher’s questions. It’s the same thing. Most of us are working for that kid now.
The simple fact is that there are jobs that require a certain level of focus and there are some that do not. Those jobs can change from company to company and industry to industry. Someone in an industry where purchasing is a secondary function will often feel stressed if they move to an industry where purchasing is a primary function. A company in industry A where purchasing is more casual may appear to have a better work-life balance than a company in industry B in which purchasing has a more important strategic role. That is more a function of the industries and markets they serve than any broad cultural trait. In fact, it may reverse itself in a different department within the same two companies.
So far, in as direct way as possible, I have tried to remind you of the consequences or opportunities you may face depending on where you put your work-life balancing point. If you want to be a VP by the time you are 40 years old, you can’t be focused on the life side of the equation. You know that. You just needed someone to remind you.
The Real Workplace Dynamic: A Double Sided Coin
But here is something you probably don’t know. Every company is really composed of two different companies. One is the people who actually work for the company and have a common company identity—an inner group. The other group is, frankly, everyone else. No matter the group, all of their paychecks are all signed by the same person. They all park in the same parking lot and all walk the same halls. The first group is much smaller than the second group. The first group allows the second group to pretend that they are all on the same plane. They are not. The second, larger group is disposable. They are not just contractors but they are not the future of the company. They fill a slot. That seems like enough of a contrast between the two camps, but in fact there is even more to it when you put them side by side:
The first group, the inner group, is always striving to do better. The first group makes decisions and moves things forward. It is never complacent and knows that change is not the enemy.
The second group, everyone else, is proud to be working at a great company. That pride ends there. Working for the company has proved a nice life style and that group is comfortable with that. Change? Why change?? Everything is perfect here.
In almost every White Paper I say I hate sports analogies yet in almost every White Paper I make one. Here is today’s:
The answer to finding the balance between your career and your personal life is the difference between someone who is content to make the major leagues and be a “big leaguer” and someone who wants to be in the Hall of Fame and will make the commitment to do so. That is often not a talent difference. It is a difference in commitment and focus. It is a work-life decision.
The Truth is the Work-Life Balance is Far More Than A Balancing Act
(You Didn’t Really Think You Could Have Your Cake and Eat it Too, Did You?)
Now, here is what you should do. Most of you work in a department of professional peers. You get your signals of work-life balance from that group and project those signals to be the same throughout the firm. You assume that those signals represent the corporate culture. That would be a mistake. Those signals represent the second group, the everyone else group, that I mentioned above.
Instead of your department, look at the signals from your boss and other Managers and Directors there as well as people considered high performers – the inner group. That is the real corporate culture. Those are the people to emulate if you want to advance. Don’t let the 20 year veteran who hasn’t been promoted in 15 years whisper in your ear about how things get done because his message is an easy one to digest. Make an informed decision about who you are and who you want to be so you don’t resent the consequences.
As ever, thanks for getting this far and I hope this White paper has been helpful.