Jul 222009

I was reading a colleague’s post on work-life balance, where she was referencing Jack Welch’s statement that there is no such thing.

Those who know me would certainly laugh if they knew I was commenting on work-life balance, but I might have one valuable perspective to offer– the perspective of a manager of people who strive for success at work AND success in life. Let me talk about a model that I’ve seen work.

As a manager, I need a team that can deliver results and handle the demands of a fast-paced work environment.  But, work demands do not understand family demands.  Work demands do not understand 40 hour work weeks (or 60 hour work weeks).  Work demands do not understand children’s needs.  Work demands do not understand unexpected illnesses.  In essence, work demands do not understand life demands.

While I don’t know much about work-life balance, I did make one realization about some of my top performers.  Basically, there is the mythical 40 hour work week where you work 8 hours a day 5 days a week forever. While this might work for an average or good performer, but I haven’t seen this work for a top performer.  I find it more realistic to think of a "bursty" work schedule.  There are times when work demands bursts.  There are times when life demands bursts.  As a manager, I have found that my top performers are able to accommodate “work bursts”.  They can spend the extra hours when we’re in a clutch.  They go the extra mile to deliver the work that is needed when it needs to be done.  I see them do acrobatics in their lives to get the job done when the demands are there.  On the other hand, since I know they are doing acrobatics in their lives to accommodate the bursty demands of work, as their manager I feel compelled to do acrobatics to accommodate the bursty demands of their lives. In essence, they have done acrobatics for me, so I do acrobatics for them. Together, we try to achieve success and find balance.  So, work gets taken care of when work demands come flying in, and life gets taken care of when life demands come flying in.  Win-Win!

Now, the problem comes in when work demands and life demands collide. Let’s face it, this happens all the time.  When this collision happens, I find the saving grace to come from the team, in work or in life.  I love it when I have teams that work together to deliver their results, and work together to accommodate each other’s life’s demands.  From my perspective as a manager, the team has hit their deliverables and deadlines on time with high quality work. But, under the covers the team has done acrobatics to cover for each other so that one person could care for a sick child or an ailing parent.  When I see a work team operate this way, I have a big smile inside because I know that this team has bonded in a way that will get them through the toughest demands of work and life.

One thing I should note is that having a team like this at work or in life is not automatic. It takes sustained effort to build the relationships needed for this type of teamwork. It means being helpful, even when it’s not convenient. It means being thoughtful to find out when someone needs help, because people in need seldom come out and say it. I find that people who are helpful and thoughtful even when it’s not convenient in turn get unbounded help from their teammates when they are in their time of need.

In summary, I don’t have an answer on whether work-life balance is achievable, but here’s one approach to try:

Life demands and work demands are bursty… and they don’t know about each other. In order to succeed at work, you must be able to work in bursts. In order to succeed in life, you must be able to live in bursts. In order to succeed in work AND life, you need to build teams around you, in life and in work, that allow you to handle those bursts. In order to build those teams, you must be thoughtful and helpful to those around you.

Work-life balance may be one of those mythical dreams, but it’s still a dream worth trying for. Good luck!

So, do you think this approach can work? Have you seen or experienced situations where this approach has succeeded or failed?

  5 Responses to “From Work-Life Balance to Work-Life Bursts and Work-Life Teams”

  1. <P>Great to 'hear' from you once again. I agree with the observations, but what exactly is the approach. &nbsp;As a manager, do you attempt to schedule the bursts, or do you react to the burst of your team and attempt to even out production according to the shared work load. &nbsp;Do you demand more of those who are not at that moment in a life or work burst? It sounds like load sharing in the machine domain. &nbsp;Can people be scheduled like machines? Or does it turn out to be more ad hoc?</P>

  2. <P>Hey Jay Cee! &nbsp;Thanks for noticing my return!</P>
    <P>As an employee, the approach is to work towards build a team at work and at home that allows you handle life bursts and work bursts.</P>
    <P>Good question as manager, since I didn't address that. &nbsp;As a manager, I would say the approach is to be sensitive, aware, and understanding of life demands, and be encouraging of little acts of teamwork where people help each other out. &nbsp;As a manager, you are responsible for delivering great results on time, so it doesn't mean "take it easy on people at the expense of delivering". &nbsp;But, it does mean create a culture that delivers while respecting life's demands, and doing this by awarding teams that deliver rather than just individuals.</P>
    <P>Great to "chat' with you again!</P>

  3. <P>Thanks for the great post–I completely agree, and I think there are ways to build it into a job or a team. </P>
    <P>I know my energy/skills do better at different times. Sometimes I'm better at the detail coffee-drinking slogging through paperwork, sometimes people oriented meetings/calls, and sometimes the crazy up all night brainstorming. There are parts of my job I like less than others (read: paperwork), but it's all part of the package, so scheduling for success works best for me. Unfortunately, sometimes work requires me to work under less than optimal conditions (read: before coffee…). That's life. </P>
    <P>Love your posts!</P>

  4. <P>another interesting bit on work-life balance, and the maker's schedule vs. the manager's schedule: <A rel="nofollow" target="_new" href="http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html">www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html</A></P&gt;

  5. Hi Susie though you said you didn’t have an answer on whether work-life balance is achievable, but you have already given out the answer……. So to make a team as an army, you have to be thoughtful and helpful to your teammates like me. :-)

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