Personal Effectiveness and Responsibility
Can Senior Leaders Really Achieve Work-Life Balance?
The whole concept of work-life balance only emerged in the mid 1980’s as people in the workplace in general began to feel that the pace and the stress of work was starting to “leak” into what they would previously have seen as their personal time. But to this early feeling of personal life time “squeezing”, we can now add at least two other factors which have made the work-life balance more and more difficult. These are the modern demands on leaders (especially as they get more senior in an organization) and the broader and broader reach of technology. Let’s therefore look at all three of these factors in a little more detail.
Managerial time squeezing
Although long shifts and working weeks (and very little in terms of annual or sick leave) were a standard feature of the industrial revolution, by the early 1900’s limits on the number of hours in a day and weekends off for most people (especially in so-called “white-collar” jobs) and time off for sickness and vacations became standard in highly developed countries. Workers, all over the western world at least, could therefore expect to work around 40-45 hours a week for many decades, up until the late 1970’s, when the situation began to shift in the other direction again. Following two significant international, and almost back-to-back, recessions in the 1970’s (1972-74 and 1977-80) many employers started to look at ways to create more workplace flexibility. In particular, this meant often not replacing people who left (voluntarily or involuntarily) and then elongating both the working day and working week. In some cases this was compensated with overtime pay but in others it was expected as one way in which to demonstrate commitment and loyalty. This latter trend was especially true for managers who increasingly began to get caught up in an almost competitive cycle of who can stay around the longest or keep the boss happy.
Today, the working time landscape has changed even more dramatically. Starting “early” and finishing “late” are commonplace, weekend work is performed by a majority of managers everywhere (whether it is in the actual workplace or performed remotely) and vacations are variously not taken, cut short or heavily interrupted by the office as a matter of course. Perhaps even worse, many managerial roles are now short-term or temporary in terms of contractual commitments, which may mean that vacation time and sickness are not compensated at all, when they occur.
Greater demands on senior leaders
Largely arising out of the same major recessions of the 1970’s, from the early 1980’s onwards, employers began to “thin-out” leadership positions, especially in middle managerial ranks, in order to save money. One significant implication of this was that the fewer leaders left behind (who were often the more senior ones) had more demands placed upon them, including more direct reports, more time demands (do more with less), and greater pressure in terms of decisions and deadlines etc.
At an administrative level alone this extra managerial pressure has meant that most leaders must now work considerably harder and longer to maintain coordination and control of bigger teams of people. This is made even more difficult when people are often not in one place, but instead are working in many locations and even in different work patterns (once again meaning that the leader is expected to extend their working day and week to cover all the necessary ground).
The reach of technology
What constitutes “technology” changes through the ages but in the last 20 years or so it is the Internet and the increasing use of mobile technology that has had the greatest impact in terms of work-life balance. In today’s world therefore, the equipment or tools to perform managerial work in particular is often mainly done on a computer, tablet, PDA or mobile phone (most of which are now as “smart” as the computers of only a few short years ago). Managers are therefore expected to use most of these tools (including the many software packages, applications and other technologies bundled with them) to accomplish their work taking them well beyond the physical boundaries of their traditional office of the past. The practical implication of this is that leaders may now respond to many emails, text messages, mobile phone calls or voice mails after-hours or during the weekend.
Now, it is a rare organization that does not use computers, cloud-based software and smart phones, and the like, to expect their leaders to stay connected to the business even when they are not in the office. As a result, communication technologies have been evolving even further (just think of the growth of technologies such as Skype and FaceTime on Apple iPhones), defining a “new workplace” in which leaders are more connected to the jobs in time and energy than to anything that might be going on in their home or personal life. And inevitably, the more this happens, the more work-life imbalances arise.
So what can be done about these pressures on work-life balance?
There are no easy fixes to any of the three pressures described above. Our working world is not only transformed but is likely to keep evolving as technology continues to develop even further. Nonetheless, the advancement of technology has positive and negative aspects to it. Yes, time is squeezed, leaders are fewer and being in touch is now almost a 24/7 affair, but with this change comes much more freedom too. Leaders can cut down on travel time to the office, deal with issues electronically (via email or by having a small virtual meeting on a computer for instance) and even fit things in from their personal life that would never have worked in the traditional “nine till five” working world of the past. Perhaps most importantly then, it is important to regard change as not so much a “threat” to our personal time but as an “opportunity” or a chance to re-shape how we work and live. Put another way, we need to find new ways to get the “breathing space” we need. It may not be the same as it was, but it might just be better.