The Great Shift

The Move to Real Work/Life Balance

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, once created a stir at a human resource conference by stating: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

He was addressing women specifically and speaking about their opportunities for promotion and growth within traditional corporate America.  And, of course, he was criticized for taking this attitude, even though it is an accurate reflection of traditional corporate America.

He was very wrong in not recognizing how rapidly emerging trends would force corporations to change how they thought about women, workers, and work. He was right that there are work-life choices and workers are making a choice. They are pressuring corporations to change their hiring and employment practices by turning down offers and demanding higher wages and more flexible working arrangements. And they are winning. The pandemic has cemented the thinking that work and life need to be balanced and that both employers and workers need to create mutually beneficial relationships.

The concept of work and life being somehow distinct from each other is a recent construct. There was no work/life balance in the 17th, 18th, 19th, or for most of the 20th centuries. No one would have even thought to separate what portion of farm life, for example,  was “life” and what portion was “work.” Wives, husbands, and children worked together as family units, producing food, clothing, or operating a small family business.  Roles were assumed and cast off as needed, and whoever had the ability or skill needed at a particular time did what was needed.

It was only in the industrial era, an era we are leaving, that these artificial distinctions arose to meet the needs of factories. Everyone had to be in a physical place for specific times to make things. It took decades to get people accustomed to working at a particular time and staying for a fixed amount of time. The concept of working from eight or nine in the morning to five or six in the afternoon for five days a week is an artificial construct that served employers but was unnatural and stressed workers and families. Neither corporate nor factory work has ever been natural, and younger workers realized years ago that there are more flexible and fulfilling ways to achieve goals.

The advent of the Internet, video communication tools, artificial intelligence, and the shift from physically making things to processing data and providing services has transformed how we think about work. It is not necessary to be at an office to do most of the world’s work, nor is it essential to stick to fixed hours or days of work.

As Simon Kuper said in the Financial Times, “If you can do your job anywhere, then someone anywhere can do your job.” 

Project teams can work virtually or be physically together or in a mix of these. Roles change as needs change, and leadership rotates as project requirements evolve. More people can now work remotely whenever and wherever they wish.  They can be at home with their kids or spouse. They can be outdoors or indoors. And very often, they can be physically far removed from the “office,” whatever that is coming to mean. The emerging concept is that being in a particular place for a specific time is less important than achieving results and accomplishing goals.

While remote work will continue to grow and dominate how we work, there will always remain work that requires physical presence, whether making something, caring for an ill person, or fixing your drainpipe.  We need physically present workers for agriculture, construction, and many other fields. But how we hire them and pay them is changing rapidly. In the face of a growing shortage of people willing to work physically, wages are increasing, and much more flexible work arrangements are emerging. “We are Hiring” signs are everywhere, often loudly stating the hourly salary. But firms have few takers. Some workers are worried about the Coronavirus, but many are making lifestyle changes, choosing to work less, and demanding higher wages to have a better quality of life. I was recently in Maine, where some restaurants close on specific days while others open on those days so that they can share staff. Some countries, such as Estonia, offer “Nomad Visas” to entice a gig workforce. States such as Vermont and Oklahoma offer cash to workers who are willing to migrate.

Climate change is also driving the migration of people willing to do physical work. People are migrating in unprecedented numbers as the world experiences more severe weather, hurricanes, typhoons, and a warming climate. More people are seeking drier and cooler parts of the planet. This will help fill the current labor gaps but has already created challenges for immigration policies and gotten push back because of race, language, and culture.

Jack Welch was right if we are thinking about 20th-century corporate life.  But the traditional corporate environment is eroding quickly. Remote and virtual work will help close the skills gap for service workers, programmers, writers, marketing experts, and even engineers and research staff. And the migration of people combined with artificial intelligence and robotics will ease the demand for people doing physical work. More of us will be able to work less and do what we find fulfilling.

Economies, political structures, old power balances, and corporations will face huge and continuous evolution and challenges. Recruiters will be challenged and stressed with the conflict between employers and workers as we muddle our way through these massive changes. But the goal should be for each person to find the right balance between work and family. Perhaps we are coming closer to this.

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