Work life balance? Forget it!

Today I’m bringing you a guest post from Michael Brown, who has been a leadership and personal development trainer for 17 years, working with organisations large and small worldwide. Michael and I first met when I took part in one of his management training courses. He was the most adaptable and professional trainer I ever had the pleasure of working with, and wasn’t phased by the many contradictions he faced in our slightly dysfunctional team.

Michael writes a very interesting blog, alongside his ‘How not 2’ videos, a tongue in cheek look at how not to manage and lead teams.

Work life balance?  Forget it!

How would you compare your working life today with how it was five years ago?

If you’re like many of the people I meet on leadership programmes, you may have lost sight of just how dysfunctional it has become. The sad fact of the matter is that the vast majority of employees have given up trying to engage with the organisation they work with. According to the annual Gallup state of the workplace report, only 16% of employees are actively engaged: the rest are either coasting along in neutral, waiting for things to improve, or even worse, actively disengaged and seeking to disrupt or abandon it.

If you haven’t noticed how the workplace has changed, here are some symptoms you may recognise:

  • Work life balance is now an outdated concept. I recently heard an HR Director in a large American tech company proudly tell an audience: “Here at Smith Industries we don’t do work/life balance. We prefer to call it work/life integration.” In other words, give up the idea of switching off when you get home: you will remain connected at all times. Period.
  • I deliver a lot of training via video conferencing technology. I have noticed that in every organisation that uses it, people prefer not to switch on their video camera. It might as well therefore be a telephone conference call. When I challenge people on this and ask why they wouldn’t prefer to see the person they are talking to, they tend to become a bit coy. The truth is that they don’t switch on the camera because they fear they may not look presentable, probably because the call is at 6am local time and they’re still in pyjamas. Once again they are required to be online at pretty much any time of day.
  • I work a lot with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. This personality profile is widely used to help people understand their life preferences. I often find that when women complete it before the leadership training, they report themselves as having a profile which is very managerial, focussed on getting stuff done, having a clear plan and being good at managing detail. When we get together in a training room and they start to open up and reveal their true selves, a very different set of preferences often emerges, with a much more free thinking, spontaneous and people-sensitive style. When we discuss why this might be, they tend to tell me that they are required at work to be someone they are not, simply in order to get by. They are not authentic, and have to put aside their values in order to integrate with the workplace culture. This is stressful and exhausting, and results in a stifling of personality and the diverse contribution that these people can offer.
  • The speed of response required of people and the quantity of information they are required to absorb is quite ridiculous. My daughter works in a large PR company in London, where the culture is that everyone who works on a client account needs to know everything that is being communicated about or to that client. She went on holiday recently and came back from a week off to 4,500 emails.
  • Face to face human contact is increasingly scarce, and even when it is available, it is not used as it could be. I worked at a client’s office only yesterday, and sat in an open plan office with eight other people. We sat in total silence pretty much all day: the main noise was of laptop keyboards being furiously hammered to death. I was coaching a manager who told me he last was face to face with one of his team over five months ago, as she was in a different office two hours away. When I asked why this was, he said that “non essential” travel is not permitted. Connecting with your employees and building human relationships is now a discretionary activity, it seems.

I could easily go on.

Do you recognise any of the above? Is it just me, or is this a very sad and rather worrying reflection of how humans are now required to exist in the workplace?

Are we doomed, or is there anything we can do about it? My answer, to quote a well known American: YES WE CAN!

We can push back, and when we do it will often have people treat us with more respect. We can manage expectations, and tell people that we won’t be available at that time, whilst proposing an alternative. We can treat relationship building within our teams as a key priority and plan time and, if necessary, budget in order to truly build connections between the people we work with. We can switch our phones off, get off email and walk over to the other person’s desk. Maybe we can even take a lunch break with someone else, and allow time for personal updates in that project review meeting.

As with so many things in life, there are choices. We can choose to drift along hoping things might improve one day (they almost certainly won’t), or we can lead the way, and change things around us. Let the rest carry on trudging through it – you can make it more inspiring and meaningful and create a more rewarding environment for yourself and your workmates.

We only get one go on this beautiful planet, don’t we: what are you waiting for?

To learn more about Michael’s work, please visit his website: Real Learning, for a Change, or check him out on LinkedIn.