Work-Life Balance

Balancing work and the rest of your life is never easy. An NPR story on results-only work environments reminded of that.  I once ran a unit with around forty-five professionals, most of whom telecommuted a couple days a week and since my current staff and I enjoy flexible work arrangements, I think I can add something to the debate.  

Telecommuting and flexible hours can work well and increase productivity and morale at the same time, always a plus, but whether or not you can have flexible hours or work at home first of all depends on what you do.  Of course, if you work in a factory or a construction site, if you are a farmer or a fireman, you have to go to a specific work site.  We are mainly talking about jobs connected using Internet. 

One of my challenges in managing ROWE (I will call it by NPR’s term, which is better and more inclusive) was perceived fairness.  Jobs where people can work by themselves or collaborate online are easy candidates for ROWE.  But some jobs require actual physical presence.  In most offices, those jobs tend to fall near the top and the bottom of the organizational chart.  Let’s start near the top.

A big part of management and leadership is just being there and being seen.  Another is making personal connections, sometimes through the simple serendipity of being there. The now classic business book, “In Search of Excellence,” talked about management by walking around.   All great leaders know this intuitively and most good managers want to do it. Leaders also know that if they are not seen, they may not be heard from again. But sometimes when you promote an excellent worker to a management position he/she thinks it is unfair to ask him/her give up the ROWE.  Actually, leaders are always living in a ROWE and their results generally are produced in person. On the other end, you have people who must do actually physical work.  Most obvious are people who clean things or set things up.  In my case, I had people who had to physically assemble outreach packets etc.  They complained that they could not telecommute, mentioning the injustice of it all.  You can see the problem from their point of view.  They are often paid less than average and have difficult time juggling work and family responsibilities. But there is nothing you can do for them except encourage them to try to get one of the jobs that has ROWE.   I found, however, that some don’t want those jobs either, because of the added responsibility, which leads me to the next aspect – responsibly.

ROWE requires greater self discipline on the part of the worker.  There are some people who just cannot handle it and I had to suspend some privileges.  But perhaps the trickier problem comes from those who work TOO hard.  They never really clock off.  For a while, I used to check my blackberry before bed and send off a few messages.  I was often surprised to get immediate responses from people still working.  Maybe they were just doing what I was doing, but I suspect not, since my inquiries were unusually one line reminders, while the responses I got for them took real work.  I used to have to tell them to stop working to avoid burn out.  AND I had to stop sending messages after 7pm or before 7am and tell others to do the same.  If people think the boss is working, some of them will work too, no matter what you tell them. 

The irony is that you have to lead by lazy example.  I “work” around ten hours a day, but in the middle of that day, I usually find time to run or take a walk. I find that it actually increases my effectiveness and not only because it makes me feel better. So much of our work is now online collaboration. It makes sense to send something out and then get lost so that others can do their parts in peace.  You often don’t add value by hanging around and can actually subtract some. ROWE has some interesting social and organizational implications. I am not sure if it strengthens or weakens the power of the employee or the power of the organization. A bad boss can become a tyrant by demanding 24/7 responses. On the other hand, employees can more easily ignore him. I suppose a lot depends on the relative power of each going in. 

It will save companies some money. I thought of using “hotelling” where ROWE employees share office space on the assumption that everybody won’t be there at any one time. I didn’t get very far with this and had to back off.  But it will come. It doesn’t make sense to have a whole suite of empty offices. Future office buildings will feature more open and common space to handle the surges, but less daily personal space. I believe in ROWE for myself and others.   

But not all mangers like ROWE.  Some personality types just like to have people around to boss. I have to admit that I sometimes feel a little lonely when I walk past empty offices, but it is the way more and more firms will be organized in future.

People will do things in a decentralized way.  In fact, we have already outsourced many of our routine tasks, such as most copying and compiling.  FedEx, UPS or the Post Office can now do most of your logistics. Cloud computing will take care of your data processing and there are firms that will handle all your HR functions.  Maybe we will all become firms of one or two people, teaming up with others on an ad-hoc basis and cooperating and connecting via communications technologies.

I remember more than twenty-five years ago I heard a motivational speaker say that everybody was in business for himself.   He explained that nobody takes care of you as well as you take care of yourself.  You had the responsibility to keep yourself current and trained by seeking education.  You had to make sure your skills were up to date and that you have access to everything you need.  You couldn’t count on your employer to do that, he said.  We were effectively our own company that sold our serviced to our employer(s).  I thought he meant it metaphorically, but he was right in very concrete ways.  We should all think of ourselves as a company that we own and manage and ask whether we would buy stock in ourselves and whether our work-life balance makes it the kind of place we want to live and work. 

If not, maybe a little R&D is in order.

BTW – the picture on top shows the first magnolias blooming near the Red Cross.