Thursday, July 8, 2010

Work/life balance

Much has been written and discussed about the captioned subject. Literally, at the end of the click there is so much of material available on it--and yet I felt the need to write on it.

My motivation to do so? Simply, somewhere I feel that the whole issue is being discussed and tackled more (only?) at programmatic levels than going into it’s intrinsic aspects—thereby losing an ongoing opportunity to touch the essence of the concept.

Disclaimer: My discussion is basically centered on how work-life balance issues are handled in the corporate environment, and therefore, my observations are restricted to this sector alone.

What is work/life balance? In layperson’s terms, it is a state where an individual is able to juggle his/her personal and professional priorities in such a way that there exists an equitable blend of both.

Now, interestingly, the corporate organizations take initiatives to help individuals attain such a fair blend by providing programs like flexi-hours, work from home, concierge desks at work place and…..the list is endless. Obviously, the notion here seems to be that these are the programs that help individuals to balance their work/life priorities better—and more so, it indicates that (albeit in an implied sense!) any pursuit of professional priorities is generally at the cost of individual/personal priorities and hence there arises a special need to correct such an imbalance.

That leads me to really raise a question: what does the ‘balance’ part of work/life balance mean?

Balance, as a term, brings with it an assumption of some kind of a state of equilibrium. Therefore, consequently, we are likely to infer that a uniform and well structured organization-wide work/life balance program will address the ‘balance/equilibrium’ needs of the workforce. And I have a problem with such a ‘broad-brush’ deduction!

I have seen/observed/personally experienced multiple push and pull factors that act against such equilibrium.

For example:
• A fresher at the beginning of his career, generally has high pull towards work priorities. Work-life balance does not matter a lot to him as much as someone who is married, has children and an extended family from spouse’s side, has ageing parents to look after etc. In case of such folk, the domestic life demands their time equally, which makes it necessary for them to strive for a work-life balance.
• And now let’s consider an example of two persons in a similar situation and yet how they look at w/l balance differently. Both of them are in their mid-careers, stable, married. They take a pause to think how they want to take ahead their career. While one decides to take a middle-course, giving equal importance to his career and family; other decides to aggressively follow his professional career and reach far greater heights of success. Obviously, w/l balance is a non-critical issue for the second person.

Given the above, I have come to conclusions that:

* Work-life balance initiatives that started as employee satisfaction/motivation enhancers have now become just the hygiene factors. Their presence does not motivate, but absence demotivates!

* Work/life balance initiatives work very differently for different folks—and they don’t work for some folks as well!

* Work/life balance is a transient state—always vulnerable to ongoing push and pull factors referenced earlier.

* It is an individual’s choice as to how to balance one’s work/life and as such what work/life balance programs can at best do is to merely provide a framework for those individuals who want to correct a degree of imbalance in their priorities—and that too, only where such balance is tilted in favour of the professional side.

* Work/life balance is a state of mind and thus a person voluntarily spending in excess of 12 hours a day, consistently, in his professional activities can also claim to have attained a state of balance as much as someone who methodically carves out not more than 9 hours a day for similar activities. In summary, physically measurable dimensions such as hours spent, facilities offered etc are not the necessary and conclusive determinants of one’s work/life balance.

* Finally, work and life can’t be after all so separable from each other, at least for those who don’t wish to separate it. E.g, for me, spending even an hour in the office after the day’s work is over may amount to disturbing the balance.But for someone else at a different stage of life, who has many of his personal friends working in the same office, spending even weekend time in the office and in the company of his friends will actually work as a ‘balance enhancing’ phenomenon!

Since I’m a great follower and a fan of work/life initiatives, I would like to endorse the noble intent behind institutionalizing those across the organizations. However, in my view, one must understand the practical outcomes of such initiatives and more importantly, their built-in limitations—that’s why this blog!

Many a time, introduction of work/life balance programs is seen as an end by itself and that’s precisely why one must understand inherent limitations of such programmatic interventions, so that in the overall context of encouraging ‘employee engagement’ one can assess realistic contribution of such programs—not underestimating their impact, but not over expecting the outcomes either!!

Finally, we must realize that work/life balance is, in more ways than one, a matter of individual decision, judgment, feeling and expression—as much as individual satisfaction is. And therefore, just as no one theory of employee satisfaction has solved the riddle of how to satisfy (and keep them in a state of mid/long-term satisfaction) employees, equally, there is no one silver bullet to ensure broad-based work/life balance!


Ninad said...

Their presence does not motivate, but absence demotivates!

Great observation

Piece insightful as always.


Ninad said...

Their presence does not motivate, but absence demotivates!

Great observation

Piece insightful as always.


Roopali S said...

Young folks spending more time in office to find balance with their office friends is a reality. Indeed an insightful perspective overall !!! Different strokes for different folks.


Swapnil Bhoskar said...

Thanks for this articel Abhay. I agree, WLB is very individualistic in nature and depends on his / her Psycho, Socio and economic needs.

Unknown said...

Good article...I completely agree with your views...for me work-life balance means that I should have time to do what is required...and that might be related to work, family or fitness. The key being - I get to choose where to focus and it's in harmony with the organisation / family as the case may be!
cheers/amol joshi

Abhay Valsangkar said...

Dear Amol, Ninad, Mali, Chandra, Roopali, Shefali, Swapnil...Thanks a lot for your quick response to my new blog..As always, I appreciate your views/suggestions...Cheers..Abhay

Unknown said...

The idea, that absence of WLB de-motivates, is interesting and compels you to think deep.

Just like the second example with two mid-career, stable, married individuals, the importance of WLB is not equal to every person. Rather, the importance is the same, but it's submerged in their way of life.

For young married couples with children, if one person gives equal importance to his/her career and family, the other half can afford to follow his/her career aggressively and attain high success. This is work/life balance for them!
If the adjustment is mutually agreed upon by the couple, they have taken care of the critical issue already.
So for this couple, the WLB initiatives are motivation enhancers! The career-person is motivated to attain professional success because he/she knows that his/her spouse is working equally hard to take care of the family part of it and vice versa.

If it's not agreed upon, the couple doesn't realize that by doing this, they are already taking care of the issue and the WLB already exists. So the absence of WLB would be de-motivating for them but its presence not necessarily motivating.

This would mean that both the viewpoints are true! Presence of WLB is motivating for some and its absence de-motivates some!

Abhay Valsangkar said...

Thanks Pallavi,your comment is insightful...Cheers

Unknown said...

Hi Abhay,
Thanks for writing on this, was much required. My insight is that when someone loves doing something at work, the balance magically appears. On the other hand, when the job is dreary, one tends to complain about lack of balance. In fact, Im working on this with a few friends in HR (demystifying WLB)
Rajesh Kamath

Abhay Valsangkar said...

Thanks Rajesh.Interesting comment!I would like to know more about your work related to demystifying WLB.It will serve as a good learning for me.Cheers...Abhay

Sunny said...

Nice article. Does employees with high W/L balance will be more productive or vice-versa?

Abhay Valsangkar said...

Thanks Sunny.Good question.My own thought is that an employee with an appropriate w/l balance will be more productive...Cheers

Rahul Mulay said...

Nice article Abhay. I agree, WLB is relative.

Organizations can only present options to an employee the choice of which will lead him/her to achieving WLB.

Maybe, organizations can roll out programs to help the employee choose wisely!

Abhay Valsangkar said...

thanks rahul..good suggestion..cheers

Aswad said...

Thought Provoking!