How to achieve work-life balance

Tags: Op-ed
How to achieve work-life balance
TAKE A BREAK: Today companies have realised that unless people are able to take breaks and spend quality time with their families, not only will their productivity suffer, their stay in the company may be short-lived too
As a young consultant I was taught if the client says “jump”, the only question you ask is “how high?” As I grew older, I figured out what it meant in practice. It did not mean you ceded intellectual ground. It did not imply that you compromised on your advice. It simply meant you went out of your way to flex your schedules and make yourself accessible to the client at all hours. If it meant working weekends or holidays, you did.

One of my former American bosses Dick Wheaton told me, “I do not care how you meet the deadline. If necessary, work 24 hours a day. If you still cannot finish, work nights.”

If you were working for a demanding client with an aggressive deadline, you worked smart, you toiled hard and you met the impossible deadline no matter what. If you whined about a cricket match or missing a play — that was a career limiting move. That was then — before the term “work-life balance” entered our lexicon.

I believe we should talk of lifestyle choices rather than work-life balance because work is part of our lives. To succeed, you need undivided attention and focus in what you do. When you are immersed in a project or a task, it is difficult to pay equal attention to your personal life. But you have choices. If you aspire to be a consultant, for instance, your life is likely to be “have bag, will travel”. If you hate travelling, you are not cut out to be a consultant. If you work for a business process outsourcing unit, your travel is likely to be limited but the hours of your work may be different and night shifts will not be uncommon. It is the same for a journalist.

But increasingly progressive companies have realised that “burning out” talent is like eating seed corns. Unless people are able to take breaks and spend quality time with their families, not only will their productivity suffer, their stay in the company may be short-lived too.

Today, the ability to offer a variety of lifestyle choices is a powerful weapon in the armoury of corporate head hunters. All companies compulsorily have to provide maternity leave; now they throw in paternity leave as well. For young parents, the ability to work from home and use flexi-time programmes is critical today.

I met a mountain climber who had “conquered” Mount Everest; there is an inspirational documentary about it too. During the critical phase of the expedition, he had very little connection with his family and friends. He could not indulge in his hobbies. His only focus was to reach the peak safely. He gave me a great definition about lifestyle choice: If you are a mountain climber, then focus on climbing and forget everything else until you reach the peak. For many a corporate mountain climber, this becomes an obsession for their entire working life. Often the peaks either elude them or new peaks wait to be conquered. In a strange way, for them, the journey becomes the destination.

Then there is the other extreme — the famous story of the happy Mediterranean fisherman from, let us say, Estepona, Spain.

An investment banker from New York was on vacation in Estepona. He met a Spanish fisherman who had just brought back his haul of fishes. The banker asked him how long it took him to catch the fish. He said, “Not long.” The American asked him, “Why don’t you stay out longer? You could catch more.”

The fisherman replied, “This is enough to support my family. Now I have time to play with my children, take siestas with my wife, drink wine and play guitar with my amigos in the evening.”

The banker said, “You should consider spending more time fishing. You could buy a whole fleet of trawlers and open your own cannery. Eventually you could move to America and do an IPO in NYSE.”

The fisherman said, “How long will all this take?”

The investment banker replied, “15-20 years.”

“What then?” the fisherman asked.

The banker guffawed and said, “That’s the best part. You will become so wealthy that you can stop working. You can move to a coastal fishing village, sleep late, play with your grandkids, take siestas with your wife, drink wine and play guitar with your amigos in the evening.”

For the happy fisherman, the investment banker’s advice is nothing short of a disaster waiting to happen. In all likelihood, the real scenario would be different. Lacking business and management skills, the fisherman may be heavily indebted and bankrupt. He may end up working for the corporation he founded. Even if he ended up rich, he would have lost 15-20 precious years of his life without radically changing the lifestyle of his choice.

But some lifestyle choices are not black or white. Often you are presented with a difficult dilemma. Last month, the queen of ghazals Farida Khanum from Pakistan was, for the first time, re-visiting her city of birth — Kolkata. She is nearly 80 and I knew in my heart that this was probably the last chance for me to meet an artist I deeply admire.

In the majestic gardens of Victoria Memorial, she was scheduled to meet folks, participate in an interview and perhaps hum a few songs. There was one catch for me. I was scheduled to be on a 30-minute international call that I was not able to opt out of.

I decided to attend the event. I stepped out to take the call, listening, from a short distance to Khanum with my phone on mute most of the time. The call ended. Just as I was walking back to take my seat she began her famous ghazal Aaj jaaney ki zidd naa karo. That was a lifestyle choice which perfectly balanced work and personal life for once!

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)

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