The Work-life Balance Conundrum

Is there a downtime for an always available employee?

Everyone who thinks they are good at multitasking is wrong. We're actually multi-switching and giving ourselves extra work," says Douglas Gentile, a professor at Iowa State University.

Actually the professor's remark is on a relatively new and ambient workload approach which is to remain connected, online or available 24X7 throughout 365 days. The dedicated tireless workers believe the entire onus of being amongst the 'ideal working class' rests on their shoulders, and they must justify to live up to the expectations of the 'networked corporate society'. One thinks that tossing down business news on a tablet along with that morning tea or checking mails on the breakfast table or replying to co-workers from vacation boats is not just a necessity, but also signifies a 'trending employee' - whether the tasks done are frivolous or worth anyone's two cents' is of lesser significance.

This digital derailment working style doesn't appear to be a big nuisance for companies young and old. While networking and connectivity are important, to keep up with the pace on Twitter, Facebook, Facetime, Slack, and other intra-networks can be time consuming. Not only does it take a minute extra in responding to a message, it also needs some amount of effort and energies re-entering the original task, restraining sustenance of creative energy flow. When there is a shift in focus, our brain reserves cumulative attention debt resulting in a hassled workforce. Constant connections take a toll on an employee; soon it ceases to resonate 'always at work' and changes to 'never really working yet always available online' rhetoric. The digital maelstrom sucking in real-time communication, and the reliance on gadgets must certainly find a peaceful break. The most urgent business needs must be met traditionally over a phone (that has gone smart most recently) or over old means of coffee chats, the favourite drink of the civilised world as per Thomas Jefferson.

Pic by Shekhar Ghosh

Organisations are and will remain time-hungry, bosses will keep overloading their subordinates and continue to breathe on their necks for reporting or to assure themselves their staff is still 'a-live' for the sake of confronting deadlier timelines. The definition of 'office hours' has no boundaries now; one can blame it on the 'flexibility' gimmick or the world turning non-fictional. The cult of staying 'online' i.e. connected has gone a bit too far, perhaps stretched a little crazily or insanely. While there is neither carpet bombing of my advocacy towards total abstinence nor anywhere do I suggest applying blanket rules of rigid time frames, there must still be some clarity on either maximising employee engagements not necessarily by overusing their personal time or not fretting superficially over gaps in productivity and performance excellence. Then the most ludicrous is also to observe penalties imposed or lack of rewards offered to people who do not demonstrate well enough their reverence towards the arduous fanaticism of keeping pace with senior management through pervasive technology. Thereof, these presumable monsters not so perversely created though - the 'devices' which are remotely controlled or governed further on the foundation of values the bosses hold. There, the objectivity goes out of the window and subjectivity takes over. The latter, as it is known or popularised almost as good as any unsound political propaganda even beyond corporate corridors, also influences the choice of worker's hiring and welfare. Priorities are reserved for ones who worship their respective jobs (or even profiles) before other parts of their lives i.e. their role as parents, their personal immediate engagements, and unfortunately extending to even health status.

Few years ago, while heading the human resource function in India for one of the world's leading consumer durables company with its HQ in South East Asia, I had realised the culture of the company was developing like that of its parent. The sales teams across various branches were working seven days a week, almost 14 hours a day. There were many occasions when on a typical month's closing, they had camped in respective offices for four days, three nights at no extra gratification or a splendid package deal. It was an accepted norm in the consumer durables industry then, but soon my team realised that the result was highly unproductive and there was an obvious need to bring about changes, if not immediately then certainly in phases. Employees can often fall in the trap of being considered as suffering with 'lazy French worker syndrome' or much more easily as an intransigent worker. In either case, it is a collateral damage to the image of an organisation and the culture it stands for, especially if the worker is justified in meeting work demands and manages pressures reasonably or with proficiency.

In the recent past, I have interacted with more than 100 employees within the 25-55 age group in various managerial capacities. An overwhelming number (over 40 per cent) believed that achieving success requires them and those around them to conform to this idea of 'an ideal always-available worker' or more quixotically 'a good corporate soldier' toiling away to glory. Such ideal workers as called by sociologists are predominantly found in most of the present valiant tech start-ups, investment banks, medical organisations, et al.

Erin Reid, Asst. Professor at Boston University, and Lakshmi Ramarajan, Asst. Professor at Harvard Business School, have suggested a route including three strategies for employees - Accepting, Passing, and Revealing - a guide towards a healthier, more productive, culturally more organised workplace driven by individual manager's willingness to bring about small changes, rather than struggling to produce giant ones. Those who do not fit into either of the strategies may slip from one strategy to another depending upon time, situations, events, type of work, etc, and there isn't much one can really do about that lot. These slipping ones are easy to be influenced or distracted.

In my personal observance, the millennial or the youngest working brigade aged between 28 and 34 years are far less 'Accepting' (5 per cent) vis--vis their older counterparts. They are neither conforming nor deeply devoted. They do not seem to prioritise their work identities or sacrifice significantly. The younger generation is apparently practical in assessing and preferring meaningful aspects of hobby pursuits, family engagements or chasing non-professional dreams over the dreary routine of performing beck and call office duties. The millennials are more suited under the 'Passing' (35 per cent) group as their strategies to also devote time to non-work activities despite being engaged under the organisation's role work best as per their priorities. As one ages, one starts accepting or negotiating better in work life; higher the age, more norm-accepting an employee gets.

'Acceptance' may also be a function of the 'gestation period' or the time taken for 'socialisation'. It is the period or duration an employee takes to adjust, adapt or adopt as per the norms of an organisation he joins. It is the initial socialisation period when he observes the culture of the organisation, his boss, analyses himself, and then depending on his priorities and attitude, decides his strategy. So when an organisation is in accepting mode, it may resist new changes, will persist to protect its style, justify or rationalise, and will have to be educated the right way.

A large number of older age employees fall under the purview of Revealers group - employees who find it very stifling, cope by openly sharing other parts of their lives, and ask for changes to the structure of their work, such as a transfer, extension of paternity or maternity leaves, etc. While the numbers of revealers become lesser with higher age, slipping ones rise.

Now, companies expand in different ways; there are no fixed or perfect ways. But these strategies can be handy indicators to help identify and develop workers effectively. One must use them as part of a deeper analysis. For instance, when work is rewarding or satisfactory, accepting strategy can be beneficial, but when there is a fear of job loss or business setbacks, accepters may find it difficult to cope as they are too emotional about their jobs and work profiles.

Similarly, 'Passing' is a great strategy as it balances the best of both worlds - of conformists and non-conformists, but at implementation, one has to be extremely discreet. While it is a great idea for an employee to hide a fact on his CV that may discriminate him at work and may deter his chances to excellent performance ratings, it can be damaging if a senior employee hides or controls information to his advantage - for instance, using telecommunication tools instead of face-to-face meetings with clients, using the time for personal pursuits, but reporting it incorrectly as work-related time indulgence. Although, passing can be a very good choice to allow psychological freedom and stress-free work-life balance, it is a fragile relationship dependent too much on first-hand information and sharing of knowledge, and trust and faith are put to rigourous tests.

Revealers, those who do not want to or cannot pass and some who initially grow frustrated with the passing strategy, over time allow validation of being more fully known by colleagues, which is denied to the passers. However, it can have damaging career consequences. For example, one choosing to stay away from work for a while as per his paternity leave grant can be easily thought of as less professional, especially for higher levels of job engagements. The experience of revealing non-work commitments and being penalised for doing so can make it difficult for people to manage others. Like passers, revealers may not encourage their subordinates to accept ideal-worker pressures, but they may shy away from advising resistance because they possess first-hand experience and know the costs of dichotomy. ~

The writer is an academician, mentor, and strategy consultant