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Connectivity and Work-life Balance

Yesterday, my 18-month old daughter woke up crying at 3 AM.

That’s very unusual; she has been sleeping through the night since she was about 7 weeks old, and her twin brother since he was about 9 weeks. So when she woke up, I quickly went in to her room to see what was wrong. The upshot was that she had a fever, took some medicine and was back to sleep within half an hour. My wife and I, however, were widely, starkly, irretrievably awake. So we did some work.

Work is easy to do these days, especially in Washington, DC. Both my wife and I have smartphones, we have a laptop through which my wife can fob into work, and I have a work-issued laptop through which I can access my VPN. So for about forty-five minutes, we both read through emails, sent out some responses, reviewed documents that were waiting for us, and got the proverbial jump on the day.

I should mention that both of our laptops were still warm from the night before. Our kids are all sleeping (or at least in the rooms) by 8:00, and it is common for one or both of us to spend about an hour on the computer after that. Even if we’re watching Glee (one of our few communal TV rituals), when we hear our phones chirp, we’ll check them quickly to see if it’s a work or personal email that has come over the transom.

Even the commute home is work-time, if necessary. Both my wife and I have voice-activated bluetooth in our cars and at least once a week, I initiate a conference call when I take my car out of the garage (never while driving!) and sit in my car in the driveway of my home while I finish, some 30 – 45 minutes later.

This is the reality of today’s workforce and what Jeanette Mulvey doesn’t seem to appreciate. Let me back up.

In mid-April, Ms. Mulvey, who writes for Business News Daily, posted an article on “The Great Myth of Work-Life Balance.” Some take-aways:

  • If we’re healthy enough to get up and go to work every day and still have a couple of hours at the end to eat dinner and watch a little TV, we’re doing a hell of a lot better than almost all of the people who came before us, who were happy just to make it through a winter without freezing to death or dying from the flu.
  • The “Work Hard, Play Hard” mentality may be all right for the Richard Bransons of the world, but for the rest of us, the reward for working – even at your own business – is that we don’t starve to death or live in a makeshift shack on the side of the road.
  • Rather than shipping [your kids] off to someone else to teach them piano, gymnastics and competitive hip-hop dancing ― skills they are very unlikely to use for the long term ― why not teach them what you do? They’ll thank you for it later when they realize that there are very few jobs available as a backup dancer for Lady Gaga.
  • Rather than finding your passion and following it, make doing a good job your passion. No matter what you do, do it well. Make your customers and employees happy and work harder at it than anything else. The rewards it will bring you will be more than enough to compensate for the death of your dream. . . .

I shared the article with my Linked In and Facebook communities, asking for responses from anyone interested. There was something about Ms. Mulvey’s piece that struck me at the time as untrue, and my social networks helped me to identify that untruth more precisely.

What Ms. Mulvey fails to account for is that today’s workforce doesn’t see work as a place to go, but as a thing to do. And, thanks to connectivity media, we can do it nearly anywhere. When I posted the article to my Facebook page for comment, Nancy Payne, mother of two, and a senior vice president and partner at a large communications company wrote this:

I do think the basic premise of work-life balance is a bit dated. With mobile devices, other technology, domestic duties and fun, I see what we do now as “life,” work just being a subset of it. The trick now is how we manage the energy we put to any given thing, and value that effort and time accordingly – whether it’s sitting in the dentist’s waiting room answering emails to keep a project moving, or completing a writing assignment at home after the kids go to bed.

Ms. Payne helps to manage a group of designers, developers, program managers and other communications specialists of nearly 60 people, most of them Gen Y. And she understands that connectivity media have blurred the lines between what we use to think of as “work” and “life.”

Facebook may bring a little bit of our social life into work each day, but email, twitter, cell phones and texting (a medium Ms. Mulvey advises people not to use for work) have the effect of bringing our work into our lives as never before.

What has changed, and continues to develop, is that the balancing act is not achieved on a scale with two pates, one called “work” and another “life,” but on a single diaz called “Your 24-hour Day.” During that time, we work, we eat, we take our dogs to the vet, we work while eating in the waiting room at the vet’s office, we talk on our cell phones at work to our friends, and we interrupt our dinner with friends to take calls from our colleagues with dire work needs. We write memos at 8:00 PM when our kids go to sleep and check for updates at 3:30 AM when they’ve woken us up. When we ask for (and expect) to eat dinner with them at 6:00, I hardly think it’s asking too much.

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Tom Bullington

All of us make choices in life. I believe a healthy work-life balance (particularly when one has a family at home) is critical. Otherwise, why bother having a family at all if you’re not going to spend quality time with them?