I’ve been reading a bit recently about work-life balance. Whether it’s an article about Joe Biden’s approach to encouraging it in his staff, or more scholarly approaches to how it’s viewed here in Australia, everyone seems to agree that ‘balance’ is a good thing, however that word is defined
One of the things that has struck me is how often work-life is assumed to be a dichotomy; you can either be at ‘work’ or you can be ‘at life’. We hear stories of how much time we spend taking work calls during ‘private time’, or working on presentations or email from home or how work activities are ‘creeping’ into every part of lives. Rarely do we hear the perspective that work and life are actually part of the same thing.
Work and Life combined
I recall an example from a time at the start of my career working for a large US IT firm that sent out an email to all employees entitled “Work-Life Balance”. The email acknowledged that in the past, the firm had endeavoured to provide all employees with work-life balance, but that in future “for some employees, work-life balance may not be possible”. I was outraged! How dare the company no longer safeguard expectations around time with family, friends and recreational pursuits? Shades of Shylock! Did they expect a pound of flesh too?
As years have passed, I’ve come to understand what email was actually saying. ‘Balance’ does not always mean ’50/50′. Balance can sometimes more correctly be understood as ‘the appropriate ratio’ and when it comes to work, I’m of the opinion that this can vary dramatically over time, between roles, projects, organisation, people and phases of your life. The company was quite rightly reminding us that, as professionals, we had agreed to not only diligence and duty, but to the provision of value. Not simply 7.6 hours per day and four weeks off, but to creating something meaningful for our clients but also for each other.
Life as Work
The reality for most of us is that work comprises the bulk of our waking lives. Apart from unlucky few ultra-rich who have inherited their wealth and have decided they don’t have to do anything to get by, most of us have to work for a living. I refer to these extremely wealth people as ‘unlucky’ because I cannot think of anything worse, more pointless and more soul-destroying, than idleness and serial consumption. I’m not coming at this from a puritan stand-point and suggesting that work has some kind of moral property that improves the person; however I do assert that work is innately important for us as human beings: we were made to create, to build. It’s part of who we are. We were made to create value and made to make the world better by the output of our collective efforts. The act of creation is one of the most human things we can do and by building something of value, we benefit ourselves and benefit others.
I’m certainly not suggesting that other things are not important in our lives, including family, or that work has absolute primacy over everything else, however the thing that sets us apart from every other species on this planet is that we are makers. Embracing this fact is key to satisfaction at work, even routine work. I understand that not all jobs are incredibly stimulating, and I believe we have a collective responsibility to design work that minimises tedium and is truly engaging for everyone, however our culture needs to do a better job at seeing work as inherently valuable in and of itself rather than a necessary evil or something to do while dreaming of time off.
Our attitudes to work should be guided by the principle of community and contribution to a larger whole, whether that’s to co-workers, customers or the community at large. To put it another way, the saddest thing I’ve heard in a while was from an interview candidate who once told me “…why do I want this job? So I can pay the bills!”
Life-Work & Technology
Of course technology has already gone a long way of separating work from the workplace, making it possible for a graphic designer in Bangalore to service her clients in Seattle, or an executive assistant in Sydney to manage the diaries of his bosses in Paris. So the old trope of ‘work adjacent to workplace’ is irrelevant in many sectors. Of course, industries such as manufacturing are still to catch up, however with the emergence of technologies such as 3D printing, the cloud and robotics, it’s likely that a shift in the nature of this work is imminent as well, the factory worker becoming someone who designs patterns and manages the remote manufacture of parts, rather than making them directly by hand or in-situ. Health is seeing a similar shift with remote diagnostics and even surgery becoming increasingly prevalent.
However we see the future panning out, embracing work as a gift which enriches life rather than takes its place, is more likely to enable each of us to be happier and more balanced professionals. Perhaps ‘Work Life Balance’ is an outmoded term? Shouldn’t we be talking about our ‘Life Work’ instead?