It is undeniably interesting and exciting to work in global businesses. But the around-the-world excitement comes with a tradeoff —an around-the-clock pull to engage and lead. Late night or early morning conference calls are now as much a part of daily business practice as the post-it note. And despite perfectly good video conferencing capabilities, we all know nothing beats face-to-face communication—and you can’t see, feel, and understand a local market through Skype. All of this means more extended road trips, odd hours, and host dinners with colleagues, which in turn means more and more unnatural living rhythms, less and less time with the family, and less time to breathe.
Currency fluctuations, the complex quest for scale, and entrenched local competitors all pale in comparison to this great scourge of operating in a global business.
We’re out of whack—running on fumes at times. We’re stripping the “lobal” out of “global” because we’re too tired to really think. When our lives get so out of skew, the significance and meaning we derive from work, and our motivation to give it our all, plummets. It becomes a battle to survive, let alone excel.
How in the great wide world do we get our work-life balance back?
Gain some understanding
It starts with understanding that the term work-life balance is no longer appropriate for the modern, global workplace. That term suggests work and life are not as intertwined as they are, thanks to email, international communications, and heavier workloads. It implies the two strands could be separated as easily as a closing whistle once ended a factory worker’s shift. And no two people define “balance” the same way, which stultifies the cookie-cutter measures often used to address the issue.
The term work-life harmony is more indicative of what to aim for—integrating work and life harmoniously in a mutually supportive fashion that yields a net pleasing effect on the whole. After all, we only have life, work is a part of it, and harmony between the two is worth the pursuit. According to a Towers Watson Gibb workforce study in 2012, 72 percent of the highly engaged agree with the statement “My organization makes it possible to balance work and personal life,” which garners only 20 percent agreement among the disengaged.
More than ever, global leaders, with disproportionately straining demands, need a laser-focused answer, not generalities, to bring their life back into harmony. I’ve developed a plan, S.P.E.C.I.F.I.C., that pinpoints what you can do as a global leader to help others, and yourself, make progress toward achieving work-life harmony in this increasingly time-challenged global business world. Start with being intentional and holistic in your approach.
Getting down to S.P.E.C.I.F.I.C.s
Simplification—Complexity has a way of creeping steadily into our work lives in small, incremental doses that build up on us over time. We often don’t notice the cumulative effect of each little activity we engage in or take on until we look up and suddenly things at work seem way too complex, overwrought, and unproductive. This is exponentially true in global businesses. It is critical to stop and ask “Why are we doing what we are?” and “Is it worth it?” Use power questions to challenge the status-quo of activity. For example, on one of my teams, we encouraged everyone in the organization to ask, whenever any new work was about to be created, “Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?” It forces you to stop and think about what’s being asked to be done and whether or not it’s worthy of the added complexity and effort it’s about to bring (global operations are complex enough!).
Another power question we asked was “How About Half-Time?” Fellow employees were encouraged to open meetings with the question “How about we do this meeting in half the time?” Setting such a goal forces discipline and gives time back, especially in those dreaded meetings that are scheduled to span over multiple hours. It’s important to note that this charge is not meant to turn each meeting into robotic drills bereft of any human connection, laughter, or fun. The point is not to take the humanity out of the meetings, but to make the meetings more humane.
In addition to power questions, you can employ power tools to drive simplification. These include Save-A-Day programs where effort is put into combing out enough waste during the work week that employees get back an entire day, and No Meeting Fridays where people focus on getting things done and clearing the way for a free weekend. I’ve seen a Global Beat-The-Clock program where a multi-region leadership team committed to eliminating one late night conference call a month through an organized, alternative, simple email approach. I’ve come across a Global Shameless Reapplication award program that openly celebrates when people effectively share and/or reapply good work form around the world to avoid re-invention of the wheel. All in all, work-life harmony in a 24/7 business world requires you to simply get serious about simplification.
Productivity self-audit—This requires a self-critical lens and watchful eye to pinpoint unproductive behaviors that drain time and energy. These behaviors/bad habits simply must go. For example, ever been on a global conference call where every region shows up a few minutes late, has technical trouble connecting, and/or eventually launches into their own unfocused soliloquy? These habits get a 10 P.M. meeting off and running at 10:30 P.M.
Energy renewing activities—Encourage participation in activities that will restore energy so employees have plenty when work starts and ends. Matthew Kelly, in Off Balance, Getting Beyond the Work Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction (Hudson Street Press, 2011) takes it further when he says, “Nothing affects personal and professional satisfaction like your energy level—there is no substitute for personal energy.” The options for creating energy-building activities at work are endless. Create a “Down the Drain” program built around emphatically eliminating that drained feeling employees can get when they leave work at the end of the day. The program could encourage a healthy lifestyle and might include a voluntary weight-loss challenge. For upcoming global trips, thoughtfully include time for the traveler to decompress upon arrival, taking time for rest or exercise. I can’t tell you how many agendas I’ve seen that go straight from tarmac to get-together. Role-model leaving work at a reasonable hour and share what energizing pursuits you’re engaged in outside of work. Facilitate continual learning and growth as a source of energy—turn global trips into enriching cultural experiences. And get the overall sleep, exercise, and nutrition your body needs. This must become a priority, even on long business trips. Take the time off from work to which you are entitled. Surprisingly, more than half of all Americans do not take all of their vacation days and 30 percent use less than half their allotted vacation time. And, yet, engagement and productivity hover near all-time lows, according to Tony Schwartz in “The Productivity Myth” (May 5, 2010, Harvard Business Review blog).
Choices—Making choices and helping others make them is the most fundamental element of achieving work-life harmony. We all instinctively know this, yet we don’t do enough of it and it’s getting harder with so many places we can choose to spend our time in businesses around the world. But choices must be made based upon reflection and realization of what kind of life you want to lead. Choices informed by keeping what’s truly most important in front of you. It’s not just about saying no, it’s about knowing what to say no to, as part of a bigger integrated plan. Then it’s about weaving all those choices into one tapestry—one harmonious life—with work integrated accordingly.
For example, I find it vitally important to live every day trying to inspire someone and/or make a difference in their lives. I have found ways to weave that driving force in my life into work. I regularly do keynote speeches at a variety of occasions within my own company and in other companies around the world in pursuit of this inner need. Preparing for these occasions requires extra time at home, but I’ve made choices to forego a few other me-time activities that are less important so that I wouldn’t have to sacrifice family time. On global trips, I’ll bring along my family when I can, offsetting the personal expense of doing so in other ways within our family budget. I’m trying to live one life, with work and life in harmony and mutually supportive of each other.
In-touch with others’ situations—Having manager/employee discussions about work-life harmony is critical. Get in tune with what might be hindering or helping the cause for your employee (or yourself). You then need to be prepared to make reasonable adjustments to job requirements or deliverables to help lessen the strain. Being creative in crafting mutually acceptable approaches to how the work gets done is also important.
Flexibility—One of the most common methods for assisting work-life harmony is the commitment to flexible work arrangements. Compressed work weeks, flex hours, less than full-time options, work-from-home options, and location-free jobs are just a few such examples. Leaders granting such options are often visibly supportive and even are role models themselves for flexible arrangements. They are also mindful of creating the right equilibrium between providing flexibility in work arrangements and keeping a sense of community and accessibility (remote workers can admittedly provide a challenge in this capacity). Provisions for flexibility accompanied by other provisions for accountability for delivering results need to be firmly in place. Other common enablers of flexibility are use of technology and a base of trust between manager and the employee.
Involve others—Working towards work-life harmony is a herculean task; it will undoubtedly take help from others. The family should be enrolled. Coworkers can help by not scheduling meetings at the start or end of business. They can help by respecting that a meeting from 9 A.M. to 10 A.M. ends at 10 A.M., not 10:15 A.M., which can throw a whole day off and affect work departure time. The point is to bravely go public with the goal of work-life harmony and enlist all the help possible.
Commit—To have success in striving towards work-life harmony requires real commitment. It has to truly become a priority, as there is perhaps no other goal that will inherently have more barriers, particularly in a global business world.
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