The Cost of Work/Life Balance

The Cost of Work/Life Balance
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

I've been hearing a lot about work/life balance these days from corporations and politicians. It seems that everyone wants to talk about how you can be successful at work and have a life too. In my career that was never the case.
I started at Microsoft in 1991 at the ripe old age of 35. That seems pretty young to me now but at the time I was the old guy. Everyone else was much younger; most of the people were straight out of college. I had a wife and two kids while a lot of people there were single. These people put in a ton of hours and a lot of them got great results because of it. They didn't care about work/life balance because work was their life, and that thinking was reinforced by the Microsoft review model that rewarded such behavior.
Over the years the employee population at Microsoft grew older and as people started to get married and raise families, the words 'work/life balance' were heard more and more, but the company still rewarded hard work and results. I remember at a company meeting many years ago a senior executive brought up the subject for the first time.
This was one of Microsoft's annual company meetings that were held in a large stadium in downtown Seattle and attended by thousands of employees from all over the world. I remember the executive got up on stage and said that he had been hearing a lot about work/life balance and he wanted everyone to know that he supported it. He went on to say that we didn't have to live at work to be successful and that we should feel free to reduce our hours and spend more time at home. He went on to say that we could still be very successful working only 70 to 80 hours a week. He meant it as a joke and everyone laughed, but many a truth is said in jest, and the people that continued to give their lives to the company continued to reap the rewards.
I've heard that the way Microsoft does reviews has changed since I retired but I bet they still give the best rewards to the people getting the best results, and I bet that in a lot of cases those are the people working the hardest and putting in the most hours.
I had a chance a few months back to speak at another large tech company. I was asked to speak to a group of managers after they had finished a meeting. When I walked into the room I saw there were several items written on the white board. One of those items was 'work/life balance'. I asked what the list on the board was for. One of the managers said that it was the list of things they wanted to work on... to get better at. I asked her what she meant by work/life balance. She said it was about people being able to have a life while still being successful at work. I asked her what she meant by having a life and she replied not working weekends and nights but instead being able to spend time with family and friends. I then asked her what she meant by still being successful. She said you shouldn't have to live at work to get raises, bonuses, or promotions.
I asked her if as a manager she had to evaluate her people and she said yes. I asked if as a part of this evaluation she gave out rewards and she said she did. So I said imagine you have two people and you are doing their reviews. I said I assume you have a finite amount of rewards to give out and she agreed that it was true. I asked her if she gave everyone the same rewards regardless of results and she said no. She went on to say she rewards results and I said that makes sense. So, I said, you have these two employees: one puts in a solid day's work and gets good results. The other stays late and comes in on the weekends and gets better results. In fact, when there is extra work to do you always give it to the second employee, because you know they will do whatever it takes to get the work done. Subsequently, which employee gets the better rewards. She said the one putting in the extra hours. I said so you're punishing the person who has a life. She said no, I'm rewarding the person getting the better results.
I agreed that she was doing the right thing. This is the problem with the work/life balance philosophy. You see, work and life are a competition. Everything we do competes with our finite time. You must decide what things are worth spending your finite time on and only you can decide what you value the most. Your company also must decide what it values most and usually what it values and rewards is results.
So, while I agree that work/life balance is a good thing to strive for, you must understand that there is a cost associated with it. If you decide to work the long hours and achieve the results, your company will very likely reward that behavior with raises, bonuses, promotions and maybe stock; those are the benefits. This decision also means you're missing time with family and friends. You won't be home for dinner some nights and you might miss some soccer games on the weekend; these are the costs. Is it worth it? A lot of people will say yes and that's a fine choice. There are others who will choose the other path, and that's also a valid choice. Certainly, doing so shouldn't jeopardize your job, but come review time the bonuses are going to the people who did the bonus work.
It's a competition, after all.

Go To Homepage