Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Social Innovation: How to Manage Work/Life Balance?

Last Friday, I took part in a very inspiring informal event: “UnConference”, organized by friends of mine Ton Zijlstra and Elmine Wijnia at the Twente University terrain as a part of Elmine’s birthday celebration. It was visited by a group of enthusiastic people from different countries interested in how networked world changes our life.

One of the questions posted was how to manage work/life balance properly? We run a series of small workshops in the “Knowledge Café” format, and I hosted one of the workplaces. Here I’d like to share our findings.

Pretty soon we found that definition of a border between work and personal/leisure parts of life had been very fuzzy. All people are different: for some their work is the only true meaning of their lives, but some prefer less time spent for work and more dedicated to families and leisure activities. To better understand this border we choose the Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and reformulated the question: “What prevents us from feeling happy about managing our work/personal life balance?”, where personal life can mean anything but work.

In most cases, working provides us with a means to fulfil our needs. But our work becomes a part of our identity, too. Its role is minimal when our needs reside only at the lower levels of the Maslows's pyramid (to secure our basic living needs), but grows exponentially when we move up to the higher levels of the needs hierarchy (levels of esteem and self-actualization). By following the TRIZ philosophy of a fuzzy situation analysis, we tried to formulate a list of contradictions which prevent us from keeping our work/personal life balance totally perfect – that is, just as we want it to feel happy because for everyone this balance can be individual.

A majority of people whose work interests are not limited to their pay checks face a fundamental contradiction: either to stay at the lower levels of the Maslow’s hierarchy to ensure stability and security or to move up to the higher levels to realize their dreams, especially when people are young and full of energy. However without strong financial independence that would mean putting ourselves as well as our families at risk. What would (probably) reduce this risk is a total commitment and full immersion to our work. However, that would also mean reducing time for any other activities.

Furthermore, we decided to outline contradictions which are experienced and treated by each participant as most important and which have to be resolved to properly manage work/personal life balance:
  • We want to live in a small quiet town which is good for our kids and work in a big city, but commuting takes of a lot of time.
  • We want to dedicate more time to our kids, but then we would not accomplish our careers as desired.
  • We want to be entrepreneurs to realize our goals and dreams, but full commitment to our jobs will unlikely leave enough time for our families and leisure activities.
  • A "perfect" vacation demands considerable time to truly disconnect from thoughts about our jobs, and such long vacations are good for our families. But are such long breaks good for our jobs, especially in modern, highly dynamic work environments when everything changes too fast?
  • Perfectionism versus getting things done: trying to accomplish things in the most perfect way we sacrifice time for either other tasks or personal life.
  • Mobile workplace versus stable workplace: being highly mobile we tend to spend more time for long-distance travel thus leaving too little time to spend with our families.
  • We need to learn more and more every day but still need to secure enough time for doing our jobs and personal things.
  • A desire to do many interesting things in parallel; but to really accomplish something we must focus on one-two major tasks only.
  • Every day we need to process more and more information which leaves less time for other activities.
  • Individualism to focus and concentrate versus the need to feel and be a part of a larger social group.
  • Quantity versus efficiency: in most cases employees are paid for hours, not for results. Thus we need to spend more time at work to ensure proper income than it might be really needed .
  • Working from home: we stay close to our families but physically remote from our social work environments ("missing a water cooler" syndrome).
  • "Work ecosystem" versus "home ecosystem": we often tend to give a preference of one rather than another due to many factors: attitude, comfort, etc. and thus even subconsciously tend to spend more time within that ecosystem.
It looks like most of these contradictions focus on two critical elements: time and space. We can neither expand time nor to be in two places at once. How do the participants see the ways out? There were some ideas:
  • Matching work with meaning of your life.
  • Finding a partner with a similar state of mind.
  • Creating a family business.
  • Splitting work between being employed for several days a week and then self-employed for the rest of the week.
  • Working from home only partly.
  • Always staying connected with your family via the Internet.
Given a limited time we did not elaborate ideas further. It is clear that these already known solutions solve just a part of a bigger problem. By asking the participants if they were happy with their current work/personal life balance, only a half of them responded positively. Which means that 50% of people are not happy – isn’t that an indication of another real problem in our society? What can be new radical innovations that would help people to feel happy with managing their work/personal life balance? Here we need to challenge known mental models of “working” which create psychological barriers preventing us from thinking out of the box: offices, cubicles, meetings, billing for hours and not for results, relations between working time and real productivity, and so forth. A very interesting area worth to explore!

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