Why ‘work-life balance’ doesn’t work


(Allie Ghaman/The Washington Post)
July 11, 2012

When people hear I am writing a book about “work-life balance,” their eyes glaze over.

But when they hear I am writing a book called Sleeping with Your Smartphone, people perk up. They say: “I need that book. That is the story of my life (or my spouse’s, or my boss’s).”

That “sleeping with your smartphone” elicits a much stronger reaction is a powerful example of how problematic the “work-life” lexicon, as well as the approach most organizations use to solve the dilemma, has become. We tend to relegate anything labeled “work-life” to the domain of mothers struggling to perform the ubiquitous act of juggling their professional and personal demands.

Yet when we talk about the always-on mentality of work today, we’re talking about a problem to which everyone—men and women, parents and non-parents, CEOs and entry-level professionals—can relate.

Currently, people tend to try to address the problem on their own one of two ways. They engage in self-help: namely, advice on how they can better manage their time, energy and relationships. Or, they take advantage of H.R. benefits such as part-time schedules, sabbaticals, job sharing or flex-time arrangements. 

The problem? Most people who attempt to change their ways, even by taking advantage of the company-sponsored programs aimed at helping them, often find themselves marginalized.

These alternatives may help individuals in the short run, but they do nothing to challenge the cultural values of what constitutes “doing good work.” The unfortunate (and usually unintentional) result is that employees find themselves less valued for participating in the very programs that their companies are advocating. That is, the new ways of working are still judged against the long-standing system of rewards based on the old ways of working.

But what if we could change workplace culture so that more personal time is possible, without the stigma that those who take it are less productive? What if we worked collectively to fix this issue that everyone faces?

That’s the question I’ve tried to answer in my research with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). I chose to work with BCG because global management consulting firms are expected to be responsive to clients 24/7, resulting in extreme and unpredictable work hours. It is not uncommon for them to travel to a project site four days out of each week and work around the clock while they’re there. If changes were possible in this environment, they should be possible anywhere.

We started by asking each member of a team to agree to “turn off” completely—from work and all wireless devices—at least one evening each week. Team members were expected to work together so that everyone could achieve this goal: covering for each other, briefing others in advance, and calling out those members who sent emails when they were not supposed to be “on.” After all, the experiment depended not just on whether each person was valuing his or her night off, but whether all of them were doing so. Weekly meetings helped to force conversations about what was and wasn’t working.

The early results were promising. Sixty-three percent of those involved in the experiment felt comfortable taking time for their personal lives, compared with 52 percent of those who weren’t part of the experiment teams. And 70 percent of participants viewed BCG as a long-term career option compared with only 49 percent of those not taking part in the experiment. To date, well over a thousand BCG teams from 32 offices in 14 countries have practiced what we call “predictable time off,” or PTO.

The PTO concept works in organizations with less extreme working hours, too. A team might give each person an afternoon off, set up blocks of “thinking” or catch-up time within the normal workday when no meetings are scheduled, or place restrictions on night and weekend email traffic. What matters is that a group of people, rather than organization policy, works together to rethink—and then reassess on a regular basis—how they work together. 

Solving the so-called “work-life balance” dilemma won’t come simply from H.R. handing out more flexible schedules or accommodating longer maternity and paternity leaves. It won’t come from reading more time-management books on how to prioritize your life and empty your inbox. And it won’t come from setting up your own personal Blackberry boycotts in the evenings if everyone else is expecting you to respond.

What it will come from is having regular candid conversations about work and personal issues; making sure people are valued, rather than penalized, for taking time off; and getting groups to actively participate in changing the way they get their work done. And it will take changing the labels we use so they’re not loaded with mommy-track associations. Only when it becomes everyone’s problem, rather than a women’s problem or a parents’ problem, will we find more than a marginal fix.

Leslie Perlow is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School and author of Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24-7 Habit and Change the Way You Work (Harvard Business Review Press, May 2012).

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