Work/Life Balance and What’s Next

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One of the first business books I ever read was David Ogilvy’s wisdom-drenched Confessions of an Advertising Man. As good as that book was it was also an artifact of its time. Consider the following advice in the chapter on “How to Rise to the Top of the Tree.”

“If you prefer to spend all your spare time growing roses or playing with your children, I like you better, but do not complain that you are not being promoted fast enough.”

The book was published in 1963 when work/life balance was not part of the conversation. In fact, the term did not make it into the American vocabulary until 1986. I’m pretty sure people started arguing about it at almost the same time.

The concept itself is flawed. It gives “work” an outsized importance by setting it against everything else in life. On the one hand we have work. On the other hand we have everything else. Child-rearing, time with loved ones, relaxation, spiritual activities, emergency surgery, hiking in the woods and a zillion other things are balanced against work.

And, what does “balance” mean anyway? Is it balance like two scales weighed against each other or balance like walking along a balance beam or balance like the flavors in a good salad?

Whatever we call it, we’re talking about people’s lives, including the part that some of us spend at work. If we’re going to have a fruitful discussion, we need to start with the realities of people’s lives.

It’s not about balance, it’s about choices

Most of the times in my life when I’ve been the happiest and the most productive, my life hasn’t been very balanced at all. But I was able to make choices based on what I thought was important at the time.

And the unhappy, unproductive times? Those were the ones where I didn’t have a choice. When circumstances or other people or the consequences of earlier choices took away my choice, life was not very good at all.

Work is only part of the mix. If you’re a boss, one way you can make this work is to give people choices. Another way is to support the choices they make.

Choices change over a lifetime

The choices you make at twenty-five will not hold for another seventy years. If you are single, your life and your choices will change if you marry and again if you and your spouse become parents. A serious illness or personal crisis will change your choices. You’ll change other choices, too, because living is about changing and developing.

Organizations have rarely concerned themselves with life changes. Want to cut back on your workload for a few years to raise young children? Good luck with that. Want to get back into meaningful work after significant time off to care for a sick parent? Good luck with that, too.

It’s up to you. Your company isn’t likely to think it has a stake in you once you don’t fit their mold. That’s short-sighted and wrong.

People are the source of sustainable competitive advantage

Forget technology and slick strategy. Sustainable competitive advantage comes from people. There’s nowhere else for it to come from.

The way to reap the rewards of that sustainable competitive advantage is to recognize that people lead dynamic and sometimes messy lives. Go with the grain. Give people choices. Support the choices that they make and have to make.

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What People Are Saying

Victor   |   05 Nov 2015   |   Reply

A breath of fresh air well written article.

Wally Bock   |   05 Nov 2015   |   Reply

Thanks for the kind words, Victor

Ed Van Allen   |   05 Nov 2015   |   Reply

As a Regional Manager in a fast paced environment I fully agree with the position the author has stated about our people and the changing dynamics in their lives. As stated, a work life balance is essentially impossible. In over 25 years of Management, my philosophy has been to manage people in light of the fact that they are people, not mindless machines without souls. There are circumstances and situations in every life that ebb and flow; high points and low points if you will, and these dynamics are present to varying degrees from day to day on every major front in the life of our employees. Being open to this fact and sensitive to it in a real way and letting your employees know that you are open and sensitive to the changing dynamics in their lives has provided me the treasured byproduct of the loyalty of those that report to me, and as a Manager there are few attributes that exceed the value of loyalty, particularly when you work in a fast paced world where we spend a large amount of the time “putting out fires” and dealing effectively with inherently negative situations in the workplace and our response time and quality of our efforts is critical to the business. Thank you for a great perspective and article.

Wally Bock   |   05 Nov 2015   |   Reply

Thank you, Ed, for those kind words and powerful comments.

Mary Jo Asmus   |   05 Nov 2015   |   Reply

Excellent Wally, and a favorite topic of mine (“balance”) seen from a different angle. When I work with managers and leaders to help them get a sense of their own personal balance, I recognize that each of them has a different view on it that suits their circumstances, and that’s the way it should be. There are those who have no problem working long hours and late evenings. Others choose to work a strict 40 hour week and spend their free time doing other things. The question is, does it work for them? Do they want to change anything about how they’ve chosen to spend their time? If they want to change that, then we can explore how their new choices might have consequences in another area of their work or life. Leaders should be asking these questions, and as you’ve so adeptly put it, support the choices people have (and sometimes want) to make.

Wally Bock   |   05 Nov 2015   |   Reply

Thanks, Mary Jo. I like your point about thinking through how your choices in one area might affect other areas of life.

Ben Milam   |   06 Nov 2015   |   Reply

I really like the article and the concept, but I think it stops short of presenting a real solution. In some companies there is a culture of 12 hour work days. In those companies there is a fear of not working long days because everyone else is doing it. In other companies the CEO actively encourages the life balance culture. They provide things that make work easier like on-site day care centers and exercize club memberships. Those CEOs frequently talk with employees about their activities outside of work, recognizes employee family events and promote outside activities. There is a huge difference between the two cultures.