The prospect of having our need for ‘work-life balance’ validated by an employer can be a deal-closer for many of us wishing to secure work and a career but also wanting to have a personal life. Employers realize this as is evidenced by the number of them who promote work-life balance in their recruitment literature. But is it really possible to achieve this, particularly at the beginning of your career, without consequences for your career progression?
Most senior students competing for graduate positions over the next weeks and months will not be surprised to learn that, if they secure a position, and are ambitious, they will probably be working long hours for at least two years. If seeking fast track promotion, working long hours will become a long-term feature of their lives, as will on-going professional training and development. The work environment and work colleagues will almost inevitably become more familiar than home and family. They will have traded work-life balance for career progress.
I read an article recently by Penelope Trunk titled, Yahoo kills telecommuting. Three cheers for Marissa Mayer! The article reveals the reality of most workplaces, one that even the change-makers of silicon-valley and the new generation of open-thinking, and ‘progressive’ employers have been unable to alter. It is one that most of us will already recognize even if we wish the truth were otherwise. Providing a market-winning product or service, delivering it successfully to customers and making a profit drives businesses large and small. It will never make business sense for any organization to risk their survival in an increasingly competitive world, to sustain ‘luxuries such as flexible work practices, staff bonuses and subsidized employee benefits. I suspect too that even without the influence of the economic downturn, recruitment and retention isn’t substantially harmed by not providing these benefits.
But let’s return to the article that I mentioned reading. Penelope Trunk is enthusiastic in her support of Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, tasked with reversing her company’s flagging fortunes. She was, it seems, already unpopular for her failure to champion issues around the low representation of women in key roles in major companies, and has now cemented that unpopularity by ‘with-drawing staff’s telecommuting privileges’, ie the option to work from home.
The article states that there is speculation about what her motives are; ‘an insider says remote workers are abusing the privilege, hurting productivity, and that the company hopes to trim a bloated workforce. Mayer said in her memo that she wants to foster better communication and collaboration’.
Trunk clearly admires Mayer politically incorrect but business-savvy decision to withdraw flexible working arrangements that provide no immediate and tangible business advantage and place in jeopardy the company’s ability to compete and survive. Yahoo has recently been in New Zealand’s ‘bad books’ as Telecom’s apparently incompetent email service provider. Hackers managed to breach the system at Yahoo’s end and access customer’s account names and passwords causing mayhem. The company has larger battles to win and can’t be side-tracked by minor skirmishes.
Marissa Mayer’s action is unpopular; clearly there are those out there prepared to see the battle for survival lost as long as they retain their benefits. Mayer has responded to her critics by saying that if you want to work in a high reward, high profile sector then long hours are typically part of that. But wait…haven’t most of us always known that? Indeed you don’t need to work for a high profile company to know that many people work long hours, and may even have more than one job.
Many of us are working increasingly long hours. The 2006 New Zealand Census Survey found that ‘35.98% of men working full-time worked 50 or more hours (n=308,079), while 18.77% of women working full-time worked long hours (n=107,562). Three-quarters (74.12%) of those working 50 or more hours are men, as are three-quarters (74.32%) of those working 60 or more hours a week. 16.32% of male full-time workers work 60 or more hours each week, as do 8.43% of female full-time workers’. This appears to be a global trend.
And if we look at the world rather than subsets of a few relatively privileged workers within major western economies, we see that the majority of people on this planet who have access to paid work, work long hours, just to maintain the basics of food and shelter. Work-life balance is the privilege of a few and this group may be shrinking.
So I’ll end with two questions for you. Are phrases such as work-life balance, staff benefits and flexible working in danger of becoming ‘recruitment blurb’ rather than workplace reality? Are women being unrealistic in expecting their career progression not to be negatively impacted by their greater need for work-life balance during life stages such as raising children and caring for aging dependents?