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Work-Life Balance, Revisted April 9, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, was quoted in a recent interview: “So there’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s work, and there’s life, and there’s no balance.” She was specifically addressing the challenges of being a working mother trying to juggle family responsibilities with a fulfilling job that requires a high level of commitment. As enlightened managers in the 21st century we are often reminded of the importance of work-life balance to maintain high morale and generally improve job satisfaction.

I remember the first time I ever heard the phrase “work-life balance.” It was 1995 and I was standing in the company cafeteria listening to our group VP tell a story to illustrate how he was trying to model the behavior. Before leaving on his most-recent vacation with his family, he told his staff that he would not be checking e-mail or phone messages and generally would not be available for work-related issues. The VP paused for effect at the end of his story, I guess to impress upon all of us what a radical departure this was for him and his staff. My co-workers and I exchanged puzzled looks. We couldn’t imagine making ourselves available to discuss work issues during our time off.

Less than ten years later my wife and I were riding in a shuttle on the way to the airport for two weeks in the South Pacific to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We were about 15 minutes into the drive when my wife warned me that if I didn’t stop talking about work immediately she would turn around and return home as soon as we got to the airport. I could go on to Bora Bora and find someone there who would be willing to listen. I wised up right away and didn’t mention work again.

What changed? When the work is challenging and I feel a sense of personal commitment to the business and the team, I think about work all the time. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about strategy and priorities and resource allocation. In China I would check my Blackberry just before I went to bed, and check it again when I woke up the next morning. On the other hand, when I’m not stimulated by the job it’s very easy for me to stay emotionally detached.

Of course we would like our teams to be engaged and fulfilled by their work, but when we tell people to maintain work/life balance and discourage them from thinking about work away from the office, or checking their messages, are we really doing what’s best for the business or the employee? Like just about everything else with management, the answer depends on the person. There’s no question that managers need to be sensitive to the signs of overwork and stress and help people maintain some balance. I feel sorry for people who don’t have a life away from their job, something they can fall back on if they retire find themselves “between jobs.” However, if people are truly inspired to work long hours and derive some fulfillment as a result, isn’t that a good thing?

At one of the HP locations where I worked there was a small on-site store that sold candy and soft drinks. Later they expanded to greeting cards and small gifts, and then they provided laundry and dry cleaning services. This expansion seemed like a good idea at the time, a way to save people from having to go off-site for little errands. It also meant more time working on-site. I’m sure many people saw this as a convenience. Others might have wondered if some of their balance was lost.

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