work-life balance in bad times

Jen said she liked my wonkish take on work-family issues, so here's a post for her.

On money.com, I found this survival guide to keeping your job in a recession, which includes the following recommendation:

For now, forget about work-life balance. A major
preoccupation when the economy was humming along nicely, "having time
for outside interests has to go right out the window now," says Bright.
"You need to concentrate on doing whatever it takes to make yourself
indispensable."

I agree with the second half of this — being indispensable is definitely a good way to keep your job — but not necessarily the first.  If you're as productive in 8 hours as your colleagues are in 10 hours of sitting at their desks goofing off, you should be ok.  As long as your boss knows that you're productive, that is.  And if your boss doesn't know how productive you are, you've got problems, regardless of the economy.

That said, I suspect full-time telecommuters are somewhat more vulnerable to layoff than people who show up to an office, in part because it's a lot harder to tell someone you see every day that you don't need their services.

This blog post from the Sloan Work-Family Network suggests that people are pitching work-life flexibility as a way to reduce costs and boost productivity in a recession.  Juliet Bourke worries that this could cut both ways (e.g. employers might cut people's hours involuntarily — and BLS data supports that there's a lot of involuntary part-time work out there), but concludes that it's probably a positive thing if it gets more employers used to the idea of workplace flexibility.

I also think there's another argument to be made, that if companies can't afford to give workers raises, but want to reward them and keep their loyalty, things like flexible hours or telecommuting can be a cheap way to make workers happy.  The downside of that argument is that it reinforces the idea that workplace flexibility is a perk for your best workers, rather than something that should be generally available.

What are you all seeing in real life? I can't seem to find the specific post, but Laura at 11d has
said that she sees a lot more wall-street types catching the 5pm train
instead of the 7 or 9 pm one, and seeing more of their kids as a result.

9 Responses to “work-life balance in bad times”

  1. New England Accommodation Says:

    working long hours is not the issue but being effective is. Too often time spent at work is not productive – meetings, travel, being seen or present in case something might happen.

  2. dave.s. Says:

    A great deal of this is luck. Luck in not having gotten good at making buggy whips in 1905 (who knew?) or at being a general-assignment reporter at the NY Times in 2007 (who knew?) or having gotten a died-and-gone-to-heaven job at Chrysler in 1999 and being far enough up the seniority chain you thought you were set. Luck in having chosen the police job in El Cerrito in 2000 instead of the one you were offered in Vallejo, which has now gone bankrupt.
    The music has stopped, and if you happen to be in a chair, thank your lucky stars. Lots of people who were up dancing won’t find a place to sit, and it’s not something they can make better by some formula right now.

  3. Laura Says:

    What I found interesting was the contradiction in “forget work-life balance” and then, later, “take care of yourself.” What? If you’re working more or harder, it’s often hard to squeeze in the extra time or energy for yourself.
    Now that I’m working from home, I’m not in touch as much with what’s going on out there. I do keep up with job listings, however. There still seems to be a steady flow for education-related jobs, but they’re kind of crappy–part-time, temporary, etc. Very few in the technology area. Technology in education becomes gravy in a tight economy. I know, for example, that my position is not being filled at my old school and the position of another colleague who did library work is also not being filled. So, I think many employers are trying to manage budgets that way too, by not filling positions that become vacant.

  4. Bobbini Says:

    My husband works for the state of Virginia and there are no raises in sight for the foreseeable future. Instead, his agency got two or three extra days of paid leave around the holidays. It was a nice perk, but more long-term flexibility would be even better.

  5. Karen Says:

    I also think there’s another argument to be made, that if companies can’t afford to give workers raises, but want to reward them and keep their loyalty, things like flexible hours or telecommuting can be a cheap way to make workers happy.
    I’ve heard many people make this argument, but I’m skeptical. In this economic climate, is it really hard to keep workers? I suspect employers will feel that being gainfully employed is enough to keep morale high for the next year or so, even in the absence of that 3% raise.

  6. liz Says:

    Karen, I disagree. As the main character says in Office Space, “fear of lay-offs make me work only hard enough to not get fired” To really motivate people to identify with the company’s future and to tie the value of their effort to the success of the company, bosses need to appear as if they actually care about their employees and WANT to keep them in the fold.
    When employees feel that a company actually values them, they do better and more productive work.
    Generous vacation and personal leave packages do more for this than salary. Rewards for a job particularly well done should be meaningful (not just a company hat or mug) – but they don’t have to be monetary. Inviting a team out to eat with the CEO or giving a team an extra few days of vacation work really well too.

  7. amy Says:

    I’m reaching back to the delightful experience of graduating into the early-90s recession, here.
    If you have a family to support, and you don’t have backup cash, I would advise forgetting work-life balance for the duration and busting your ass. If you can spend time with family after that, terrific. But I remember very clearly what it meant to be poor back then, and there’s considerably less safety net now. I also remember discovering that 500 other people had applied for the $16K job I was grateful to get, and that most of them were middle-aged, with years of experience in the field, and advanced degrees.
    Back then, I was the only one of my college friends who did the thing where you work 3-4 jobs instead of hiding in graduate school. I did eventually go to grad school, but not until the worst was over and I was well set up, and only because I was fully funded. In fact, I’d gotten an assistantship, gone out to rent a place, been aghast at the cost of living, and decided I didn’t need grad school that bad. Stopped at the program office on the way out of town to say thanks but no, and drove home with an enormous fellowship.
    The results for my friends have not been good. On the whole they went and got fashionable master’s degrees and paid through the nose. That’s meant that now, over a decade later, they’re still paying off student loans, but now they have mortgages, children, and more or less useless master’s degrees. They’ve got little or nothing in the way of savings — stands to reason; they were making good money for a while, but also had $70K+ in loans to pay off — so now the stakes are very, very high for them. I’m seeing the “distance I’m willing to commute” barriers drop week to week.
    I think fear is a very healthy thing here, Elizabeth. The rest, unless you plan to live off savings, is dreaming. Your boss should recognize that you’re super-productive in 8 hours…yes, in that theoretical world where no friction exists and no one’s ever heard of a Laffer curve. If you need to make fulltime-salaried money, I think it’s more likely that you’ll put in your 8, and then another 1.5 aggressively marketing yourself, doing work on the side that distinguishes you, and/or maintaining leads to something more secure.
    Liz, I read your “what the CEO should do” paragraph, and was thrown back in time to a corporate retreat in which staff got up the nerve to say they wanted more money. This was a $300M company, and the staff I’m talking about did 95% of the sales; I don’t think any of them were cracking $40K. The VP laughed. Actually laughed. And told them they could hit the street if they felt like it, because there were hundreds more lined up outside to take their place. The thing is, it was true. Nobody walked. How many of them are still there, I don’t know. It was the kind of company that did regular middle-management purges, so I imagine many have gone. Enough of the top dogs are still there, though.

  8. jen Says:

    I’m with Karen. Nobody needs to do anything to retain their people at the moment, beyond making sure the checks continue to clear.
    And amy’s right, too: if you have kids and a mortgage you’re busting your ass right now, and you should be. This is a brutal, brutal, brutal time. Our CEO point-blank told the entire company that he expects everyone to work 10 hours a day from now on. He personally walks the floors making sure everyone’s here by 8, and still here at 6. Is this a smart way to run a company? No. Is there any relationship between hours spent at your desk and productivity? Also no. And whether he’s effectively leading right now is almost beside the point: he is personally flipping, and this is how he’s expressing it. And I don’t even have it as bad as some friends. My girlfriend who works in automotive software has been told “there is no such thing as a weekend: we work 7 days from now on”. She’s booked on conference calls on Sunday mornings. She can’t say no.
    Given this environment, do I really think I’m going to able to leave early some days to pick the kids up at school? It’s not even safe at the moment to imply you’re not super busy by accepting extra vacation time, unless it’s been offered to more people than just you, and without your asking for it. You must maintain the perception that you’re absolutely saturated.

  9. ana Says:

    You’re asking about real life experiences – my company used to offer a 9-80 workweek flex benefit, but that’s now gone as of 1-1-09 :( Reason given was that apparently some high muckety muck didnt’like seeing less cars in our parking lot on Fridays, and apparently some people were abusing the system.
    To make up for this loss to ‘benefits’, we were told that the company was still commited to work-life balance and that from now on we shouldn’t be sending emails/working off hours. HA! But we still have to get work done…

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