Disservice of work-life balance advocacy

The advocacy of work-life balance is so pervasive within the culture of office work that it is hard to distinguish it from the culture of the office environment itself.   The balance is enforced by labor laws defining a work week as five days of eight hours.  The balance is part of the benefits packages such as allowances for vacations, sick time, and other excused leave.  The balance is built into company policies concerning flexible and loosely enforced work schedules including options for telework or compressing workweeks.   The balance is promoted in office amenities such as rooms set aside for exercising, game playing, TV watching, etc.  The balance is part of the daily conversation with peers and across management hierarchies.

With all of this allowance for the work-life balance it is surprising that the topic remains frequently discussed and promoted in career advice articles and all forms of popular media and entertainment.   It is as if people still have not got the message that there is life outside of work.

From my experience, I’d say most people have received that message and embraced it with enthusiasm.     Those with balanced lives take the continued advocacy as meaning they should tip the balance even further away from work.   More often then not, they succeed and that is a good thing.    Life should be enjoyed.

I frequently raise an objection that work is part of the universe of activities that can bring enjoyment to life.   This objection says that work-life balance is a synonym for two categories of cash flow: work means net cash coming in, life means net cash going out.   The work-life distinction is a marketing strategy to promote consumption albeit as the consumer’s discretion.    This particular objection deserves a completely different post.  My motivation for this post to is to inquire on the wisdom of promoting work-life balance in the first place.

The promotion of the importance of work-life balance is well-intentioned quackery.  As I mentioned above, it is similar to a marketing campaign to get people to be more prolific consumers.  Similar to marketing campaigns include selling more expensive houses or cars.   The intentions are good in that there are benefits for such expenses.    The down-side is that most people have to take out loans that they may not be able to continue to pay off.

A work life balance is the leveraging of the collateral provided by the fact of current employment.   The analogy with taking loans for expensive houses or cars is that both the monetary loans and the work-life balance assumes the jobs will be perpetual.   A person will always be employable.  In particular, a highly valued employee will remain highly valued indefinitely.

Underlying the concept of a work-life balance is the assumption that the employment value of an individual is something that will never diminish as long as the employee performs well and receives commendable evaluations.

I think this assumption is fundamentally flawed.

A performance review is a review of a previous period of performance.   The evaluation occurs at the end of that period and so it is informed by the projected challenges for the next immediate period.   When a person’s prior performance (even if excellent) is not relevant to to the coming challenges, the performance review will be muted with new objectives set out to get the employee in line with the new challenges.    In other words, the performance highly valued in the past may be inadequate for the future.    The employment value of the individual had declined despite the good performance.

What stimulated my thoughts on this topic are recent reports of large layoffs of technology workers at locations that at the same time have unfulfilled job openings for technology workers.   I am thinking in particular in the data science fields where people skilled with older technologies that handled data are no longer needed despite the company embracing newer technologies to handle data.

There is simultaneously a glut of unemployed experienced and often well reviewed technology workers and a crisis of technology job openings that can not be filled.   In the data science area, the urgent question is how can we fill the opening for the talents needed for big data and deep analytics.

The combination of layoffs and unfilled job openings reminds me of the conditions in the late 1990s.    At that time the Internet technologies were booming with new jobs demanding skills in modern technologies and in particular specific popular programming languages.     The Internet boom had the counter effect of declining the fortunes of older technologies especially in the area of large mainframe applications.

The so-called Y2K panic illustrated this contradiction vividly.    Due to earlier technology limitations, the storage of a calendar year was often shortened to a 2 digit field in languages that promoted a decimal (as opposed to a binary) as superior for handling integer or fixed point numbers.   With the coming new millenium, all of the dates stored that way will appear to occur a century earlier, or that there will be no way to distinguish years that are a century apart.    The technical problem was that old software needed to be updated in a very short time period because the Y2K deadline was “a deadline that can no slip”.

The old languages were very different from modern languages.   The differences led to different cultural practices for writing software.   It was a challenge for more recently trained computer scientists to tackle the older languages with the productivity needed to meet the deadline.

In order to meet the Y2K challenge, I recall the peculiar news of bringing people out of retirement to re-employ them to fix this problem.   What made the news peculiar was why many of these people would be retired in the first place.   Many were young enough to be in very productive working age: many were in their early 50s.   Many seemed delighted to have the opportunity to apply their craft again.

At the time there I wondered why they weren’t still gainfully employed in the first place.   They could simply be reassigned from a more modern project to the project of fixing old code.   Instead, we had to seek them out and offer them new jobs.   They had previously been laid off.   Until the Y2K issue reached the level of a exaggerated crisis, these people were no longer employable.

This was period of time when we had a crisis of not enough people to fill programming jobs to support the Internet boom.   Despite this demand, we had a reasonably sized unemployed pool of seasoned software developers with well earned experience of real world software life cycles.  Their disqualification was they they had outdated skills and culture of practice.

From a macro-economic point of view, our economy allowed a valuable pool of labor resources to become unavailable for economic productivity.

The same thing is happening today within data science.   There is nothing new about the challenges of developing software strategies for handling more data with limited resources.    Evidence of that challenge is in the choice of decimal data fields reduced to two digits that led to the Y2K crisis: at the time it was a reasonable answer for efficient storage and avoidance of rounding errors.

But today we have a crisis of not enough deep trained people in the newer data science technologies despite laying off people who have data skills in older technologies.

I will concede the point that the new skills are essential and that the older group is not yet qualified.

My complaint is how did the economy allow a group of valued people become obsolete.   In many cases, these individuals with obsolete skills had excellent performance reviews for solving data problems with older technologies.    They had experience with the fundamental nature of data in a computer in contrast to the observation the data purports to represent.

Work-life balance seems to be one likely culprit for the generated obsolescence of previously valued talent.

In the peek years of productivity for a particular kind of skill or talent, the demand for the employee’s labor exceeds the hours he has available to provide them.   Performance reviews applaud the relevant productivity.    The employee is encouraged to adjust his work-life balance.   For the hours outside of the working hours, the employee is discouraged anything that is work related including training.  He should enjoy life.    Meanwhile, during working hours, there is such a high demand for application of his existing skills that that practice consumes all working hours.

All of this highly valued employee’s working hours need to be devoted to the practice of existing skills.  He is so busy with work, he is encouraged to spend his off time on anything not related to work.

This encouragement is often in the form of rigidly enforced rules such as time-keeping, approvals only for work related education or participation in conferences and conventions.   Even if an employee seeks to attend conventions on his own time (violating the spirit of work-life balance) he is often not permitted to present the core of his own work to his peers in publications or presentations.  He must attend primarily as a passive audience member.

Work life balance is exaggerated to mean precisely the devotion of working hours to the practice of current skills and the prevention of work advancement opportunities outside of working hours.

Then the work ends.   I heard the phenomena eloquently stated as “They desperately needed me, until they didn’t”.

Work hard at what you are good at working hard at.   Punch out the timecard at the end of the day and devote the remaining time to life outside of work.

The concept of work-life balance is corrosive to a persons career and future employment prospects.   It is very much like the 30 year loan for a barely affordable house.   The loan provides immediate enjoyment of something that must be paid for later.    Likewise the exaggerated emphasis of life outside of work is the immediate enjoyment with the expectations of future relevance.

There is a similar but more subtle corrosive effect of the flexible working hours and the at-work leisure opportunities.   I agree that these amenities have no effect on present productivity.   People can get just as much work done when they have flexibility of when and where they work.   There are plenty of convincing stories of the extreme productivity possibilities of working in the comfort of a quiet home without the stress of a commute, or working in the empty office at 10 pm at night.

Just like the earlier example of the fully productive valued employee, those work hours are devoted to the practice of the current set of skills.   That practice is highly valued and rewarded.

The corrosive effect is in the reduction of opportunities to advance.   A person working alone at home (teleworking) or during extremely earlier or late house is a person working alone.   No one can observe his actual practice of the work.   A manager of a new project will have fewer opportunities to observe the potentially reusable work habits even if the precise skills need to be updated.   Likewise, the isolated staff working diligently on a project will have fewer opportunities to observe work being done by other groups or to overhear news of new work opportunities.

An earlier post summarizes this a failure to appreciate the value of a more rigid work schedule where everyone follows the same working hours.    I think the earlier era that more commonly enforced a rigid office hour schedule recognized productivity differently than today.

In that era, immediate productivity was balanced against future productivity.   Having everyone working in the same office at the same time fostered promotional and transfer paths that provided the company the agility to tackle new opportunities with exactly the same staff.   People were much more informed of the capabilities of their colleagues and of the challenges that need to be prepared for.   Coincidentally, this was also a period of more lenient policies for participation in work-related activities outside of work.  I described the more prevalent and often productive practice of business lunches and dinners that may consume a substantial portion of the “life” part of the work-life balance.

These outside of work-hour activities were not exceptional, they were built-in the culture of work itself.    A 9-5 job with an hour off for lunch meant the office was nearly vacant from 12-1.   Everyone was at lunch at one of a few convenient locations.   A lot more happened at lunch than the consumption of food.    Similarly, the office vacated pretty much promptly at 5pm and more often than not there would be an after work meet-up at a bar or restaurant: public areas where they will encounter current or potential competitors, business partners, or customers.   A lot happened in these meetings that was facilitated by the fact that everyone got off work at the same time.   The stuff that happened was relevant for the future prospects of everyone involved.

We are sold on the implicit benefits of a work life balance because we assume our inherent good work qualities will serve us for a lifetime as long as we are well reviewed in terms of current performance reviews.

There should be a competing marketing campaign of balancing present productivity with future relevance.    Due to the highly regulated nature of modern work and its demands for high productivity, our working hours must be devoted maximally to the practice of current skills.   That practice is the application of current skills or practices for current immediate and highly appreciated needs.

The worker needs a separate block of time to prepare for future opportunities.  Unfortunately, the best opportunities for preparing for future opportunities are denied from him due to the policies that promote work-life balance.    The best preparatory opportunities occur such as in the earlier era that offered much more lenient policies that actively supported participation of work-related activities outside of working hours, whether that is in the form of regular business lunches or dinners, or in the permission to present current work products to conferences or conventions.

Today we believe training courses or advanced degrees can replace experience as an effective form of continuing education.   This is a topic for a different post.   My view is that the best opportunity for continuing education is exposure to actual business-relevant opportunities that include access to the resources available only within a working business.   We can not simulate the chance meeting in the hallway of executives leaving a meeting and becoming invited into the discussion with “and this is just the man we need to do the job, allow me to introduce you to …”

For data science, an aspirant candidate has little opportunity to reproduce realistic data models for a particular type of business.   Instead the candidate takes training using publicly available data models that nearly all students encounter, with the only opportunity for practical experience is on the peculiar challenges of that particular data model.

The most relevant practice opportunities will not occur in the the work-irrelevant life that balances for the well deserved time off after productive delivery of present skills.    When the work stops needing the individual, the taking of packaged training courses for general audiences is going to be a poor substitute to the training opportunities that could have been provided on the job even if that meant spending a few more hours in the office.

Work-life balance is a baited trap for the workers at the peak of their productivity.

The hunter seeks out the prey at the peak of its life because of its trophy physique or qualities of flesh or hide.  Once trapped, life ends.

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One thought on “Disservice of work-life balance advocacy

  1. Pingback: Reflections on solving work-life balance | kenneumeister

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