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Drawing a line in the sand: work-life balance

We live in a time where ‘work’ and  ‘life’ permeate each other to such an extent that it is not possible to identify where one ends and another begins. The preoccupation of companies, professionals and even governments with the attainment of a ‘work-life’ balance indicates that this is one of the central challenges of modern living. At what point is an individual in a white-collared job freed from his or her ‘work’ at the end of the day? Is there really an end to the day, or is an individual who looks at his office emails in the middle of the night still working? I believe that real life takes over at the point at which the worker (and yes, ultimately we are all workers, no matter how large or sophisticated the organization we work for) is free from phone calls, emails, pagers, smart phones or other kinds of devices that keep him or her working. Then ‘life’ has a chance of taking over.

If this is the scenario, then naturally organizations are concerned about finding, training and retaining their precious workers. The level of engagement in their work affects the productivity of the organization. So what factors contribute to this supposed commitment or engagement? If you think this is not rocket science, pay a good salary, provide medical insurance, the usual pension package, throw in a gym, cafeteria and it has to work- think again. It is going to cost an awful lot and not achieve desired results. People are not predictable, just as their lives are not.

There is a whole world outside the workplace that they bring with them to their desk everyday (metaphorically, of course!) - aging parents, dependent children, newborn babies, health issues, marriage prospects, the looming threat of divorce et cetera, et cetera. The answer to understanding your employees lies in their sociology, the factors that are rooted in the society from which they emerge as workers, and these are external to the organization, but impact the internal functioning of the organization in profound ways. There is a delicate relationship between the life stage of an employee and the stage of that employee’s career in a firm. An understanding of this equation would enable employers to retain employees at various levels of the organization. Demographic factors such as age, sex, level of education, number of dependents, marital status affect the expectations of workers from the workplace and their consequent level of engagement with it.

Cultural factors also impact employee expectations from a workplace and thus also, levels of dis/satisfaction. And these cultural factors are supported by the state of the economy, polity and society at that given time in history. For instance, pre-liberalization India applauded and expected white-collar workers to remain with one company for a greater part of their lives and movement between firms was considered undesirable. In post-liberalization India, movement between firms is considered necessary for career growth, especially amongst the youth. Thus the economy drives the perceptions and attitudes of the workforce.

It cannot be denied that besides non-organizational factors, organizational factors affect the daily functioning of workers. However, these alone are not sufficient in determining employee movement between firms. Relationship with the boss, relationship with peers, equitable opportunities for growth irrespective of gender, status or standing of the company in society, the work environment and the culture of the organization, system of rewards and recognition, ability of employees to visualize their future in the organization, provision of timely training in the organization and commensurate opportunities to apply their new skill set in the workplace, and concern in the personal life of the employee from a superior- are some of the major factors within the organization that impact the way that workers feel about the workplace.

Colourful offices, casual and comfortable seating, vending machines on office premises, and the company Christmas dinner are nice, but not nice enough to make people want to stay. It’s complicated, it is everything at once. The internal factors, the external factors, the sociology, the demographics. But if you want me to look at that email in the middle of the night, you better understand where I’m coming from and what I want in my life.

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