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Work-life balance - have you got it right?

A fresh look at this topic by Peter Fryer

How many people on their deathbed wished they had spent more time at work?

The issue of work-life balance seems to be cropping up everywhere these days and the main thrust of the argument is that many of us are working too hard often to the detriment of our non-work life. In other words, if our work-life balance were a seesaw then we would have piled far too much on the work side.

I believe that the phrase 'work-life balance' raises a fundamental question about the nature of work. Is our work part of our lives or is it some kind of separate existence?

Life is composed of many things:

Carrying out tasks
Social interaction
Sleeping and so on . . .

There are many different ways of categorising the things we do in our lives and whatever list you come up with the chances are that the components of the list could equally happen in our working lives or our non-working lives.

For example, 'carrying out tasks' could be paid activities in a factory or an office, or decorating a bedroom or paying our bills - can they all not be classified as work activities? Social interaction could take place at a friend's party or in a networking event or team meeting - again, it's hard to differentiate the task as being a work activity or a personal one.

Rather than struggling to separate our working lives from our personal lives, perhaps we should review all the things we do and see if we can organise them better. It seems to me that if I have home accounts and a business report to complete, the best place to do both is at my work desk, but if I have an article such as this to write I am better doing it at home where I will have no interruptions and can listen to my favourite music which helps to feed my creativity. Likewise, if I am travelling to Grimsby on a work errand it makes sense to do all the things I need to do in Grimsby, whether work-related or not, at the same time, just as it would make sense if I was travelling to a social event to combine that with work errands.

So maybe the emphasis should be on work-life integrations rather than trying to separate them and then balance them. Some examples of this idea in practice are:

Operating a 'no-set hours' policy:

· This means no flexi-time, no signing in and out, and no overtime. Staff are able to come and go as they please, as long as the job gets done properly and on time. My experience is that this approach means that staff work smarter, they work longer hours during the busy times when they are really needed and, most importantly, are much more productive to the organisation. I believe this approach is successful because it gives people responsibility and allows them to take control of their life because they are in a position to integrate their work and non-work activities in a way which accommodates reality.

Using office equipment:

· Allowing and trusting staff to responsibly use the telephone for personal calls increases productivity because staff are able to deal quickly with non-work issues and then concentrate on work tasks. And if staff can freely use the internet at work for personal use (keeping the proper safeguards against, for example, pornography) then what better way is there of training them to use it for work purposes?

Using techniques and skills we learn at work:

· When we organise our day ahead our 'to do' lists should be a mixture of work and non-work activities and we should have one single set of priorities. And all those skills we learn, such as negotiating, communicating, listening and creating win-win situations, are just as relevant and valuable to us in our non-work lives.

Staff development plans:

· Ensuring that an individual's development plan includes elements of personal development, such as thinking skills, learning about learning, and advanced communication skills, enables us to make better use in the organisation of things we learn outside and better use in the wider community of things we learn at work.

I fully believe that if we can integrate our working and non-working lives better we can be more efficient and effective, and we can achieve more in all aspects of our lives.

I would like to leave you with a final thought. When I was a management trainer one of the activities I used was an 'in-tray' exercise. This comprised ten pieces of paper all of which required some urgent action to be taken before noon that day. The aim of the exercise was to put the pieces of paper in priority order and say why. Amongst the pieces of paper was a letter from the participant's long-time best friend who lived elsewhere in the country and was passing through that day on the way to a new life in New Zealand and the participant would never see them again. But the only time they were available to meet with the participant was at noon that day. Without fail, every time I ran the exercise all the participants put that letter last. When I challenged their reasoning they said 'but it isn't work-related and we shouldn't mix work with our private lives'.

Let me ask you this - would you want to employ someone who had so little loyalty they would reject their long-time best friend in favour of a work assignment? Whatever your answer you will get from your staff the loyalty you deserve - the decision is yours.

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