Work-Life What?
This is my site Written by Alora on January 5, 2009 – 4:43 pm

I hate the phrase “work-life balance.” I truly can’t stand it. I think it’s a b.s. phrase that is one of those organizational design notions that sounds really, really good, but in truth is so vague that everyone has their own definition, leaving no consensus on any kind of standardized meaning.

Implications of Being “Even”
The first definition for “balance” on defines the word as:

a state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight, amount, etc.

While I recognize that the phrase is not literally intended to mean that there should be a minute-by-minute division of one’s day, the fact is that “work-life balance” implies that one’s work and personal lives are supposed to be (at least reasonably) evenly balanced. That is a flawed assumption.

For starters, as a rather classic ENTJ, I would argue that assuming I could possibly be happy with that much of my time focused on non-professional activities is presumptuous and inaccurate. For me only working 60 hours per week is ‘taking it easy,’ and there is no way that anyone else’s expectation of how much time I “should” be spending outside of work changes the fact that is simply not who I am or who I want to be. Period.

On the flip side, the best example I know of is my younger sister. She easily has 30 IQ points on me, and yet she does not have a career-oriented, ambitious bone in her body. She has spent her entire career careening from one dead-end, mindless job to the next. She has been happiest when she was not working at all, but was a stay-at-home wife experimenting with organic and/or vegan recipes, doting over her cats and playing computer games all day. For her the only reason to have a job is to have a paycheck, and even then, only if there are not other arrangements that can be made so she can simply avoid the entire unpleasant mess.

If the universe were to decide to amuse itself and play a Freaky Friday on the two of us, we’d both be miserable. By lunchtime I’d be breaking into the liquor cabinet; and she’d probably call in sick and not bother going to work at all. By the time we switched back, I’d return to my life to discover that she’d thrown away all non-organic food products in my house and updated the OS/service packs on my computer; and she’d return to her life to discover that she had half a dozen job interviews lined up and her three rooms worth of pack-ratted storage had all been hauled to the dump. Neither of us would be happy, because both of us are most happy when our lives are completely ‘out of balance.’

Dividing the Red Sea
The other objection I have to the idea of “work-life balance” is the idea that there is a hard-and-fast separation between work and the rest of your life. I suppose for some people, this is probably the case. I have known a few people in my career who do not make a habit of socializing with co-workers and who, once out of the office for the evening, are disengaged and ‘out of pocket’ until they return the next morning. However, coming from a technology and start-up background, those people are in the extreme minority of my experience. Most people that I know flunk on the ‘work-life balance’ if for no other reason than because there is not that clear of a distinction between their work life ends and their personal life begins.

Since the time I started working full-time in my early 20’s (even before I was done with college) my closest friendships have always been with people I met at/through work. Always. And while we certainly do and talk about other things when we are together outside of the office, we also talk about work and our careers. There is no clear line where one stops and the other starts.

On top of which, there is a universal truth about the tech sector: tech geeks are tech geeks at home as well as at work. How many server engineers have you met who rebuild machines at home all the time just for fun? How many of them have servers in their garage (or pantry) that run their home network? And how many of them come into work eager to try a new trick that they spent the weekend experimenting with and want to apply it to the work environment? Ditto with developers and all other types of tech geeks. And, in a 24/7 web-run world, you never launch, upgrade or convert anything during the day. That always happens late at night. And people rarely come into the office for that. Instead, we all get online, jump on a bridge call, and work from home in our pajamas all night. Further blurring the line between work and life.

Another issue I have with this concept is that I find it to be semi-disingenuous political correctness in good times, and then completely absent in bad times. I’ve never been at a company that touted the importance of work-life balance in good times that didn’t stop as soon as economic conditions turned south.

We’ve past the point where the phrase “work-life balance” either suits us or serves a genuine purpose. The real notion is “work-life integration” or “work-life compatibility” (for the late adopters and/or non-info workers out there). Most people only work because they need a paycheck (or benefits, etc.), which means that often the life side of the equation is what matters most. Those of us who work even when we don’t get a paycheck need far more time spent on work on any given day. It’s only the small minority who fall somewhere in between really stand a chance of finding that mythical “balance.” For the rest of us, finding an integrated solution is what we need so that we can keep our focus where it needs to be — wherever we are, or whatever we are doing.

  • ggw_bach

    nice article. For those that live their passion and make a living out of their talents, the divide is quite small indeed. One does what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and the rewards flow back to you.

  • Mayo

    Good read! If there is any inch of a divide…50/50 yea right, then I wonder how many of us should have about 40 to 50 years waiting for us since we somehow put in 80+ hours a week our first 20 years of work…can’t wait…but I’ll have fun doing it even if it is while working!!!