Nathan Zeldes toiled for many years in the high tech world, helping from his post in Israel to shepherd Intel through the hazards of information overload as the World Wide Web and e-mail exploded. These days he is a consultant, but he returns often to a story from his Intel days to highlight that the issue in regaining balance remains workplace culture more than technology or workload.
He worked with a female engineer who was smart and organized. She would head home at 5 p.m., and others would declare, shocked, "Already?" It was if leaving the office at a reasonable time was an offence against humanity. She was productive, but leaving at a sensible time rankled – seemed wrong. "There's something evil about a culture that allows that to be acceptable," he reflects in an interview.
Certainly technology is burdening us with more information than we can easily handle. In a recent blog post on information overload he noted that the typical knowledge worker receives 50 to 300 e-mail messages daily of which 30 per cent are useless, and spends 20 hours a week dealing with e-mail.
In the interview, he remembers the exciting time when laptops made it possible to work from home in the evenings. He was convinced this was positive: Instead of staying in the office, you could have dinner with the family, play with the kids, and then perhaps put in some time afterward tackling that important office project. But smartphones ruined that possibility. These days the smartphone beeps and rings through dinner and playtime with the kids, as a steady stream of urgent requests come in, by e-mail and voice.
Work-life balance seems a lost cause. But he disagrees. That female engineer, after all, managed to leave at a decent hour. In his blog, he shared two other stories:
– He remembers a fellow manager arriving late to the office one day with a small bag. When Mr. Zeldes inquired, the colleague indicated he swam every day before work for fitness. When Mr. Zeldes asked how he could make the time, the colleague responded: "Once I'd decided to do this, I found I can make the time." But it didn't stymie his career. The fellow did very well nonetheless.
– Mr. Zeldes' grandfather was a very busy man, juggling multiple duties, albeit in the days before e-mail. "Yet he had adopted an inviolable rule that the weekend was to be dedicated purely to his family. Guess what: He had a successful, long and satisfying life, and was as serene and relaxed a man as you can hope to see," Mr. Zeldes writes.
A third example comes from around him in Israel on Saturdays, when Orthodox Jews refuse to do any work because it's the Sabbath. No e-mails, no phone calls – no work at all, for a complete day. A day of rest. Yet they manage to be productive, overall, and it wouldn't occur to any employer or colleagues to ask them to change. It's culturally accepted.
That highlights the importance of appearance and perception. If everyone conceives that it is viable for someone to take time off work for balance and family, it will be OK. In fact, beyond the human reasons for such breaks – the value for families – he argues it just makes practical sense: "After too many hours at work you are too stupid to do any good."
Ultimately, he argues, work-life balance is in your hands. He quotes the first paragraph in Winnie The Pooh, about the little bear coming down the stairs "bump, bump, bump" hitting the back of his head: "It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it."
We must stop bumping for a moment, and find that other way. He says if you want to see your children grow, you need to:
– Set clear limits.
– Communicate those limits clearly to others.
– Stick to those limits, no matter what the pressures.
Those limits will depend on your own situation. It might be not checking e-mail after 7 p.m., leaving the office at 5 p.m. twice a week to work out, or not taking your laptop on a family vacation.
Communicate those limits to colleagues and clients so they know what to expect. You may want to give them a route to reach you in an emergency – a real emergency. He recalls somebody who gave a cell phone number to clients and said they could use that if they really must talk to him immediately. Or sign up for AwayFind, and then tell people that although you don't look at e-mail after 6 p.m. or on Sundays, if they need you they can contact you through that service, which will call your cellphone.
He recalls a single mother who lived 10 minutes from her office. She wouldn't take her laptop home, but if someone called about a work item she would offer to go back to the workplace to fetch it. Rarely was she asked to, since that seemed an ungracious request for most of the supposedly important calls she was taking at home.
Once you communicate your limits, he urges you to stick with them. Don't allow exceptions. And don't worry that you will become ineffective. "Actually, in the long run, you will probably deliver better and more output, because you'll be less stressed, more alive, more balanced," he writes.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter