Work-Life balance benefits no one in the digital age
This post is to expand on a recent assertion I made on LinkedIn:
If you practise work-life balance, you will find it difficult to operate in the #digitalage.
Created in the industrial era
Firstly, let’s establish why the notion of work-life balance came about in the first place. Up until the industrial age work and life were highly integrated. As hunter gathers we pursued food when we needed to and did not confine ourselves to ‘nine to five’, particularly if we hadn’t eaten for several days. It is a well-known fact that animals do not give birth on a nine to five basis and so agricultural era workers often found themselves operating outside of the period that we today consider working hours.
With the arrival of the factories, our working life became more regimented. We also became paid-labour, the human equivalent of horsepower. We were contractually obliged to work certain hours. As an aside, there was thus a greater contractual focus on activity than productivity.
Despite the economic benefits of working in a factory, we generally did (and to a large extent still do) meaningless work. We were assigned to a sub-process and repeated that robotically at a clock speed determined by the shop floor manager / conveyor belt. Given our physical and mental potential, this was an extreme form of human denaturing. Consequently, we sought to ringfence this unpleasant part of our lives, so that we could enjoy our private lives in peace. Thus, the concept of work life balance was formalised in the industrial era.
But that was then
Today we are in the post-industrial digital age, though more accurately we are in a period I would call Industrial Digital, because many organisations are still clinging on to their industrial era models. But sooner rather than later, I believe we will enter the Human Digital age, where the true capacity of humans is recognised and harnessed to create value.
The primary capacity I refer to is our ability to be creative. The extent of our creativity is determined by the extent to which we can direct our cognitive capacity to creative endeavours. If you or I are to thrive in the digital age, we will need to be able to demonstrate that we can turn our cognitive capacity into customer-pleasing experiences that command a very high margin.
From cog to cognitive
Thus, to be of economic value in the digital age, we need to be able to apply our cognitive capacity in a manner that the market values.
It means that we need to be less like the corporate-compliant factory cog and be more aligned to the likes of Pablo Picasso, Lady Gaga and Andy Warhol. Brilliant at what we do, even if we are a bit of a HR nightmare.
Such cognitive workers recognise that their most creative thoughts do not necessarily occur at the desk or within traditional working hours. Being paid to be creative is in Maslow’s terms operating at the level of self-actualisation and self-expression. Such work is ‘living the dream’. But only if you are willing to use your brain and take responsibility for your deliverables.
You might say that as we enter the digital age, we are morphing from cogs, through talent, into artists. Artistry being the convergence of talent and creativity. Artists typically generate their ideas and refine their art at times that do not sit neatly with an industrial era nine to five model. Thus, the notion of work-life balance is of no benefit to them.
Work-life integration might be a better construct. Even then they will not dismiss inspiration that emerges during their daughter’s marriage ceremony just because it is ‘family time’. In fact, such traditional off-limits events can be the source of deep emotionally-fuelled ideas. Of course, turning up to such events with a flip chart and pens would be overstepping the mark.
Why do you do it?
If your focus is on maintaining work-life balance, it suggests:
- You have a cog-type role, even though your ‘factory’ might well be furnished.
- You do not enjoy what you do and thus need to compartmentalise that tedious activity known as ‘work’.
Of course, there will always be a need to strike a balance between work and life. I would not expect you or Pablo Picasso to switch into work-mode in the middle of an important family gathering. Though I am sure Pablo would have been very happy to turn on his art if one of his children asked him to sketch their fragmented Lego brick construction.
Nobody wants to be the vicar who dreams about making love to his partner whilst giving a sermon. And similarly, mentally constructs sermons whilst making love.
At times, there must be boundaries.
Digitally enabled work-life balance?
In some sense, digital age technologies are making work-life balance easier. The cloud and collaboration technologies are saving many of us from unnecessary commutes and thus serve both to preserve our cognitive capacity and to enable us to better blend work and life. But again, I believe it is a mistake, or at least a symptom of a deeper malaise, if your aim is work-life balance. If you are passionate about what you do, then why manufacture boundaries?
Cog work is for cogs not humans
Work-life balance as I have perhaps conveniently defined it is a relic from the industrial era (much like retirement) and comprised spending much of the day doing what we didn’t particularly enjoy (for money) and once that was done, the rest of the day, week, life was ours.
As we evolve from factory cogs to cognitive athletes, we will find that both work and life become increasingly entwined.
But we are less likely to resent this because in the digital age work is more about self-expression and serving the greater good (stakeholders and not just shareholders) than simply paying the bills.
Work life balance benefits no one in the digital age.