Work vs Life

In a departure from my usual diatribes about risk management, I had some thoughts on work-life (im)balance.

Some argue that work-life balance is a misnomer. I read it should be called work-life management since there never is a balance. The best one can do is to manage each one.

 A recent study by the Canadian Index of Wellbeing suggests that societies, workplaces and families have changed the way they are spending their work/leisure time and has identified trends with negative consequences:

 –        Working adults are spending more time commuting between work and home. On a related point, people who travel by car are more obese, have elevated heart rates and more anxiety than commuters who take public transpiration (who walk to/from their trains or busses).

–        Childcare is not completely affordable, available or flexible, especially for people who work non-standard hours like Sundays or nights. Many daycares require children be picked up by 6 PM which means parents with long commutes have to leave work by 4:30 (and that his often a cultural faux pas).

–        More women are spending time providing care to seniors. As a result, people are taking more personal days and have less time for leisure activities.

 Many of these issues have direct or indirect downstream effects on our health and our children’s development, respectively. Families are spending less time eating dinner together and on leisure and culture activities.

 The Issues

 People want to be able to do a great job at work and still have a life. To that end, organizations need to understand the issues, root causes and downstream effects facing staff.

 I feel that the biggest issue is probably a cultural one. People in many roles are often “informally evaluated” by peers and supervisors by the length of time they spend in the office rather than the quality of their output or efforts. People are too often viewed as costs and managers seek to maximize what they get out of their expenses. While some positions like receptionists, help desk or operations require staff to be at their desk during defined times, not all people have to.

 This idea is a paradigm from the “manual work” era where people performed visible and specialized tasks during a designated time. Today, most people are “knowledge workers” who bring “productivity and invisible work” (i.e., strategic analysis, risk management oversight, etc.) to the organization; they should be viewed as assets and not costs. They can do their jobs from anyplace (often) and anytime (always).

 The irony is that we promote technologies that permit people to work from home, trains or planes – during “regular office hours” or late at night – yet somehow the efforts visible during “regular office hours” seem to be the only efforts that matter. Additionally, the technology employers provide staff has blurred the boundaries between work and home: people are “perpetually on call” which is an unrealistic expectation.

 On the other hand, many people spend too much time at their desks and should get up from their desks during the day even to have a stretch or short walk around the block. It’s simply not healthy to stare at a screen all day. In another example of irony, I submit that many people eat lunch at their desks so they can finish their work to leave a little earlier. While that is their prerogative, they probably get dirty looks from the people who took a full lunch hour, two coffee breaks and four smoke breaks during the day – when they pack up their things at 4:30 PM. After all, they arrived before 8 AM and need to pick up their kids from daycare by 6:00 PM; they will put in another three hours of work when the kids go to sleep. But since that work doesn’t take place during office hours does it still count?

 Trust Your Employees

 These Sterling-Cooper attitudes have to change and flexible hours should be promoted from the top. So long as people “deliver” on time and do not burden their co-workers and backups with their extra work in their absence, it should not matter when people arrive and leave the office or show up at all. At a minimum everyone should make themselves available between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM for meetings or conference calls, but so long as they put in their 8 hours (or more) it should not matter where they are or when they do it. Trust your employees to do their jobs.

 To that end, give everyone the opportunity to work from home either by providing laptops or access from home personal computers. And promote it. Perhaps your employee coaches his kid’s hockey team and needs to attend a practice every Thursday at 6:30 PM. If he cannot make it to the rink in time, no matter how early he leaves the office, then he should be allowed to work from home that day. This promotes family and community and would probably make the employee work twice as hard on Wednesday. (Not to mention saving three total hours to commute that day translates into a couple of additional productive hours at home.)

 Second, the organization should do everything it can to support a bilateral relationship of honesty and trust with its employees. Some organizations allow employees a finite number of personal sick days but do not permit them to take a day off to take care of a sick child or parent; this forces the employee to lie about the reason for their absence or to take an unplanned vacation day. Trust your employees to do the right thing.

 Finally, anything that promotes health and wellbeing is recommended. How about a fitness credit towards the purchase of an elliptical machine, a membership at the local gym or a recreational soccer team? How can you encourage people to take five laps around the park across the street or attend a daily yoga or stretching class in one of your converted conference rooms?

 If you have any other ideas translate into happier and more loyal employees that can make your workplace a better place to work, please leave your comments.

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