Sunday, 10 April 2016

Putting the China away and daydreaming of a better work/life balance

Last week turned out to be a real Liquorice Allsorts of a week. I should have been flying out to China, but my new role meant that my place was taken by someone else. Whilst my heart was sad at missing the trip, my head said it was a good opportunity to think differently about my work life balance. It's not that I think I work harder or longer hours than other knowledge workers, but at times it can feel like I do. In my previous role, there could often be a great deal to cram into the working week, and evenings and precious weekends would get sacrificed to meet these demands, which wasn't good for anyone.

On one of my journeys I was able to catch the engaging Lucy Kellaway programme on Radio 4, which explored the UK long hour office culture and what happened to the 9-5 working day. You can hear it here on catch up Radio. She noted that 50% of the UK workforce work over 40 hours a week, and that most people who work more than 48 hours say they are unhappy. Interestingly, Lucy also noted that our productivity starts to decline after 55 hours and at 70 hours, the productivity of most knowledge workers was almost non-existent. Keep that pace of work up for long enough and you are more likely to be prone to depression, dementia and other disabling cognitive loss problems. 

In 1930, the economist, John Maynard Keynes, predicted that by 2030 the development of technology would result in the British working population working a 15 hour working week. Of course this hasn't happened, but the way we are able to do somethings has radically changed. We can communicate differently, be interactive and creative with others and do so across remote and virtual environments.  As social media has developed so has our interpretation of concepts such as 'friends', 'followers' and 'likes'.

I think in the context of work, such changes might well have shifted our sense of self. Not working might mean 'not being' in many peoples experience. However, embracing a different work life balance, one where the boundary between 'being at work' or just 'being' can bring into sharp relief the concept of the whole or complete person.

I recall, many years ago Tom Peters ('In Search of Excellence') describing the notion that people don't become someone else when they walk through the factory gate or office front door. He noted that many organisational cultures don't recognise this fact of human nature, let alone acknowledge the wider contribution that a colleague might bring from being a Mother, Scout Master, member of a choir, or army reservist in the hours they are not working. 
All of us are 'complete people' whose lives no longer easily differentiate the person at home or work. For many of us we are much more 'visible' to others in a way that just wouldn't have been possible just a few years ago. I am not sure whether that is a good thing or not.  Last week I was 'visible' in the old fashioned sense of the word. I took part in a focus group looking at changes to University Pensions – an interesting experience, not least as the focus group was held on Tuesday evening in studios located on Canal Street, Manchester. As a good looking, youngish 60 year old man, I was flattered, but not entirely surprised at the attention I got as I walked back to my car.

I also did a safety walk about at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Hospital, which is always a privilege, and always an interesting and informative experience. But on a busy ward, having ‘strangers’ (in the Franz Boas anthropological sense of the concept) visiting, and particularly strangers who are symbolically visible as authority figures, can be a daunting experience for some. It was a good visit with lots of positive examples of safe care seen. As often happens in such situations the 'social order' and a sense of equilibrium was quickly established.

And despite not being in China last week, my own sense of self was nurtured by a number of encounters that reflected my new role. I was interviewed on film describing my contribution to the ICZ Programme; I co-facilitated a workshop with the University Management Team, aimed at agreeing some underpinning principles for the programme; I had a wonderfully enthusiastic meeting with a Professor of Robotics and shared her excitement over creating a new Living Laboratory; had 2 papers accepted for an international mental health conference in Prague; and my writing partner Sue and I had our latest paper published. So yes, it was a real Liquorice Allsorts of a week. 

It was Peter Drucker, who once said the No 1 sign of an effective leader was that they do things well by doing one thing at a time. Whilst technology provides us with the opportunity to do so much more in the given time and certainly its possible to do more things well at the same time, we should perhaps remember the wise words of Dov Frohman (read his book 'Leadership the Hard Way' - as a previous VP of Intel he knows a thing or two), who said 50% of our time should be unscheduled and that the secret to success is daydreaming!