Perspective

Why work life balance is a false trade-off

an employee meeting
Søren Pommer
By on 15/09/2011

Modern Scandinavian companies are very focused on the concept of “work-life balance.” Personally, I think the concept represents a false trade-off that we should not accept.

Why should work and life be viewed as opposites? Most of us spend a very significant part of our lives working. It’s sad if our work is a sacrifice that allows us to live.

It reminds me of a Danish prime minister from the 1930s (Thorvald Stauning, in case you know of him.) He ran for election on “every worker’s right to 8 hours of work, 8 hours of spare time and 8 hours of sleep.” This sounds good and in most of the Western world, we achieved this in the 1970s. However, it suggests a daily toll of back-breaking labour that we endure to enjoy some spare time in which we actually live.

Stauning’s campaign promise made sense at the time when our work was physically hard and repetitive.  For the most of us, it doesn’t make much sense these days. Today we should drop the work-life balance concept and embrace the fact that “life is work and work is life.” For all of us that are characterised as “knowledge workers,” this may be hard. It requires quite a transition in the way we work to drop the speak of work-life balance.

Is spare time overrated?

If spare time supposedly is a key life goal and a key to “work-life balance”, then what does the average Western citizen do with his spare time? Apart from normal everyday human chores, he or she spends significant time on Facebook, TV and similar. These activities are often spiritual fast food for our fundamental happiness and well-being as human beings.

Scientific studies (and spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama) convincingly argue what makes us happy. Happiness comes from developing ourselves through meaningful and generous relationships with other people. For the most of us this would primarily mean our friends and family. However, today many of us spend more time with our colleagues and business relations than we do with our family and friends. Work may, therefore, represent our largest potential for increased happiness and well-being and perhaps this is why work-life balance is articulate.

Why is work such a chore?

So, why is work’s potential for happiness only realised by senior executives, employees at humanitarian and religious organisations and by entrepreneurs? Why is work so seldomly enjoyed? (apart from those good expense account dinners, of course)

Perhaps the reason is that work only makes us happy when it motivates us. Often it does not. If we were motivated then we would not view life and work in a trade-off. Then Work life balance would not be articulated.

There is a way to be happy at work (and it doesn’t involve a new job)

The writer Daniel Pink makes a really good point on what motivates us. He explains how the management and incentive systems of most large companies do not make much sense if the work is abstract, complex and frequently changing. His point is that these systems were designed for the repetitive, task-oriented work that I described before. (He explains it much better himself in the TED Talk video below – but don’t view it just yet…)

Today, technology and people in the developing world are doing a large part of the repetitive work employees in the Western world did in the past. So, if it is not the type of work that we do “that makes work feel like work”, then what is it? Daniel Pink’s point is that “modern” management methods are to blame for making work and the work-life balance feel like a chore. I interpret it such that we often have to work in pre-defined business processes that were conceived by other people. Some people know how to make us work more effectively translating our working hours into a more usable output. This scientific management approach has some merits but it has a side effect. It reduces our motivation, our “work-life balance” and “removes life from work.” The result is that many people mentally detach themselves when they leave for work in the morning. They merely go to “deliver their hours so they can get home to enjoy life.” Both the company and the employee loose from this and work-life balance is then on the topic.

Pink summarises modern research on what motivates knowledge workers. He boils it down to three requirements:

  1. A feeling of autonomy
  2. Pursuit of mastery
  3. Sense of purpose.

If these three factors are required for us to be motivated, then how can we bring them back into work?

Autonomy for collaborative groups

Let’s look at Autonomy. Few functions and employees would be productive in a company if they had full autonomy to do as they pleased. Almost everything else requires collaboration. So, what if autonomy was given to groups of people? They could collaborate to find better ways of organising work and delivering customer value. An example is the self-guided teams that manufacturing people know. Lean also represents similar thinking.

What if we expand this “collaborative autonomy” to more parts of the company? Work is a process that should be enjoyed and making the work-life balance talk unnecessary. The road to enjoyment is through collaboration and a more direct influence on the business processes that guide our daily work. When something does not work and we know it as a group, then we should be able to change it quickly. It can not wait until the IT department has time three months from now, or when a review board has time to convene. We should be able to change it as a direct result of our learning so the process is different next week (within a predefined mandate, of course).

I think that such a short distance between thought and action will bring back a feeling of empowerment and autonomy that will motivate us. We should not be forced to repeat activities that we now can be improved by us if we had the tools. Being forced to repeat errors reduces our feeling of what we do as meaningful. In turn, it erodes our motivation and it makes us cynical. This is what strengthens the damaging trade-off between life and work and make work-life balance necessary. We must find better ways.

Pursuing mastery

Then what about Pink’s point on mastery? Some say that we live in a so-called “zapping culture” that reduces our attention span. Reality shows and self-promotion has created an environment of amateurism where everybody has an opinion about everything. Anybody can become an expert on something that they didn’t even bother to understand. This is a difficult environment for the pursuit of mastery.

Add to this that productivity has been inflated as a concept. We think we’re becoming more productive when we send more emails and check off more to-dos on our long, daily lists. We’re placed in open office landscapes where noise is equal to productivity. It’s an illusion to think we’re productive when doing this.

In my opinion, this culture of work stands in the way of our pursuit of mastery. We should do less but do it better. We should work with higher concentration and focus. Have you had the experience that problems you had already solved keep coming back? I have. This is because we practised “checkpoint management”. They were merely checked off on your to-do list. Their root causes were not removed. We merely treated their symptoms. I think that in today’s culture of work we don’t learn enough. We apply the same solutions to the same problems. We just give the solutions new names. This causes frustration in all of us and it damages our motivation and “work-life balance” is needed.

Sense of purpose

So, how do we ensure a sense of purpose? For those people that work in green tech and in charitable organisations, it probably is easy to link work and purpose. The challenge is that most of us don’t ensure clean energy, treat sick people or help people in the developing countries. No, our contribution is from within washing powder, cookies, cars, industrial components, transportation, consulting, advertising, communications, etc. Where’s the purpose for this majority of us?

It may come from leaders becoming better at connecting the company vision with our everyday work. However, we’re more likely to find it ourselves if given a better chance to bring our life into our work.

Gluu’s humble contribution to getting life back into work

The purpose of our work is to unite the interests of the organisation and the individual (this is why our company name is close to glue). We do this through a platform that enables ongoing collaboration on improving business processes. It is well suited for giving autonomy to collaborative teams of people that work with business processes across the silos in the organisation. Mastery comes from making it very easy to deploy improvements and see a direct result of the effort. A purpose is not part of the package but people may find it themselves if middle managers are given the right tools to help explain it and show it in the daily work.

We hope to help reduce cynicism. I think it will be reduced when our training, our reflection and our team discussions are closely connected with the actual activities in the business processes we are part of. It will also be reduced when our insights can lead to action and improvements quickly.

Please enjoy this TED Talk on what motivates us…

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