Friday, May 6, 2011

Work Life Balance

Many tried and have yet to achieve their intended outcome.  I recently watched the movie, “The Devil Wears Prada.”  The Art Director, Nigel, told Andy Sachs that when her whole life is up in smokes it means it’s time for a promotion.  Many executives struggle with that balance.  I know how torn they are.  All of them want to have a meaningful family life but are constantly drawn away by the demands of their work.  They want to be successful at work and successful at home.  Can the balance be ever achieved?

In a TED presentation, Nigel Marsh talked about work-life balance.  He mentioned a number of interesting thoughts.  One is that certain job and career choices are fundamentally incompatible with being meaningfully engaged on a day-to-day basis with a young family.  What troubled me most is when he said that one will achieve balance when you don’t have work or don’t have a life.  I am troubled because of its truth. 

Given these scenarios, do we have a chance at achieving work life balance?  There is a ray of hope.  Nigel Marsh also said that “If you don’t design your life, someone else may design it for you and you may not like their idea of balance.”

When I started my career the work was demanding.  I was fortunate that it didn’t take me away from my family for long periods of time.  In fact, I could only remember one occasion that I had to travel for a 3-week period.  I could spend my evenings with my family and didn’t have any conference calls.  While I worked in shifts, it still meant that I am home for the major portion of the day.  Work was stressful but when I left the office, I didn’t have to bring any home.  Well I did occasionally.  This is when the top brasses of the company are visiting and we had presentations to make.  Laptops were not in fashion and too expensive.  So any computer work is left on the table top in the office.  Come to think about it, the laptop may be a reason why we had to extend our work hours to the home.

When I got promoted, the company gave me a laptop and a mobile phone.  They call them tools of the trade.  These are the handcuffs that constantly connect you to the office.  There is no escape.  You are within reach with 11 key punches or less.  As the company grew and become global, my time and my family time reduced proportionately.  There were teleconferences that took me right to the wee hours of the morning.  We complained about these teleconferences but there is not much we can do about it.  Some conferences are useful while most were not worthy of our time.  With the ease of getting information, we are pulled into a situation where managers are pressured to providing “live” information.  This is a vicious cycle.  The easier it is to get information, the more information is required to be fed into the system.  This required many people to contribute into the information system on a continuous basis.

This is a small slice of the causes of imbalance.  The work has been redesigned to be in the office, have conference calls outside the normal office hours and for what small amount of time is left is to plan for the next day at work.  This leaves us very little or even no time for self and family.  The gravitational pull towards to requirement of the company is too large for us to resist.  As Star Trek’s Borg says to their captors, “Resistance is futile.”  We are caught up in the array of getting and sharing information that it has become our prime directives.  What can we do about it?

I didn’t have the answer to this imbalance.  However, I was more fortunate than many in that my promotions were not rapid.  When I reached a senior level within my organization, my children were late teens and requiring lesser of my time.   When I traveled, my wife accompanied me on most of the trips.  This is a worthwhile personal investment.  Regretfully, I neglected myself and the community.   In my earlier blogs I wrote about them.  One being “I goofed, you shouldn’t.”  At that time, my work and family were the most important.  I didn’t think much of dedicating time to myself and contributing to the community.  Now it is “payback” time.

I struggled with what you can gain from reading this post.  Everyone has different goals, different priorities, different situations, different challenges and therefore different ways to deal with their work-life balance.  I am responsible for my balance and its consequences.  In the end, I just left it to you, the reader.  You will have to create your own balance.  You may gain some insights from the experiences of others but it is all up to you.

For me, I position myself as the pivot of the balance.  I determine how large each piece on my balance is.  They varied from period to period.  In my early career, I had only two pieces – work and family.  In the later career years, work became larger than family and I faced the consequences as they surfaced.   So my balance varied from phase to phase in my life.  It was not easy but I had to take time to review them.  My reviews cycles were once in 6 to 8 years.  Now, work is the smallest piece, then community.  Family is now my largest piece.   I am looking forward to my next review at the end of the year.

Good luck in your work-life balance.

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