Friday, September 07, 2007

LNB #049: Work-life Balance (sigh)

This is a short work week due to the Labor Day Holiday. People are slammed, trying to get work done and the children back to school...and everything else. Someone said their short week felt more like a punishment requiring them to work even longer hours. Conversations have turned to the mythic Work-Life Balance.

Where did this come from?
This term was coined around 1986. Men and women of color and white women had begun making serious inroads into the professional workforce. The country had been experiencing a depressed economy and people were working longer hours to try to get ahead. Added to this, workforce reductions caused people to work even longer hours. Workers balked at complaining over the extended work weeks for fear that they'd wind up on the chopping block. There was a heady mix of increased worker productivity, advances in technology, stepped-up globalization, and more people in the workplace that went into the RIF brew. After WWII, the average work week was right at 40 hours. Today, younger workers are unfazed by a 70 hour week with an average work week of 47 hours (this with the addition of women and people of color).

To most minds, WLB is little more than time off.

I remember taking a group of managers off into the "wilderness" (Oconomowoc, Wisconsin) to meet in groups, discuss our personal mission statements, meet with a Jungian analyst and get a massage (yup, it's all true and I'm hanging my head in shame). Sounds nice, but the gathered managers and key employees were left wondering: How do achieve that much vaunted "balance" when my evaluation depends on producing results (no matter how long I have to work to get them). Added to the mix is the trend for performance management systems to include evaluation of a worker's work-life balance. Now, I had been in HR for a number of years and I know I didn't have a solid explanation of WLB. As it turned out, no one else did.

Seemed kind of pointless.

How you think gives an insight to how you work?
Even though I'm trained in behavioural science, I'm not a fan of extensive testing in the workplace--mostly because I'm not sure that those tests are valid (measures something worth measuring) or reliable (consistent application of the measure over time). Taken in broad strokes, humans tend to think and solve problems in two dynamic ways (there are others, but just hang on: we're embarking on a little chat here): linear or serial thinking and non-linear or parallel thinking.

In a serial world, a person handles one problem set through to completion. Ask them to take on several projects and you'd be spitting into the wind. Parallel or non-linear thinking and problem solving tends to see people working on several projects at the same time (or moving from project to project). In most companies, we make space for only one kind of thinking: care to guess which one?

Does it work?
Now, I've met those people who thrive on the energy and drama of a packed schedule. You may like to run from pillar to post with your hair on fire, trailing paper, taking on the cellphone and sliding into a parking space at the gym in just enough time for yoga. You may like being up in the wee hours checking email and crafting a question for your LinkedIn Q&A forum. If that works for you: God love you. Keep on keeping on.

There really is no need to force change on a person whose personal system is working. Where we get into trouble is when it no longer serves us: That's when it's time to consider other options and develop other habits.

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