Buddha Says Balance

I’m confused. The most high profile boss of our lifetime, Jack Welch, is sending mixed messages about work-life balance.

In his book Winning, Welch writes, “Even the most accommodating bosses believe that work-life balance is your problem to solve. In fact, most know that there are really just a handful of effective strategies to do that, and they wish you would use them.” In his straight-talk style, he adds: “Your boss’s top priority is competitiveness. Of course, he wants you to be happy, but only inasmuch as it helps the company win. In fact, if he is doing his job right, he is making your job so exciting that your personal life becomes a less compelling draw.” Spoken like a man who divorced his first (non-compelling?) wife and—by his own admission—didn’t know his children very well. GE must’ve been like crack to Jack. So compelling. So exciting. So addictive.

Now that Jack’s been away from the crack pipe (work) for a few years—and the U.S. has been served an economic crap sandwich—“Neutron Jack” has disarmed his tough talk on work-life balance. He told attendees at the 2009 Society of Human Resource Management conference that “many companies are turning to tools they hadn’t used before to keep their employees happy, such as flexible work arrangements. It’s important to take care of your best, so they don’t leave when things get better.”

Not exactly an endorsement, but Jack’s newfound interest in work-life options mirrors that of business leaders in Madison and beyond who are exploring compressed workweeks, reduced workloads, and job sharing as a way to trim personnel and operating costs and avoid layoffs.

Kyra Cavanaugh of LifeMeetsWork.com (Chicago) ticks off a laundry list of reasons she believes flexible work arrangements are here to stay: “If you look at the convergence of trends—skilled labor shortage, generational attitude shifts, advances in technology, environmental awareness, the need for disaster/contingency planning, alternative work schedule experimentation and the changing values of Americans in response to the recession—I think it’s a fair bet that things will never go back to the way they were.”

How would our workplaces—and Madison—be different if we all were furloughed, or worked a little less?

1. Commutes would be less hairy. At Semco International, the company’s owner, Ricardo Semco, allows shifts of employees to work together and choose their work hours. Because the company is based in Buenos Aires where commuter traffic is brutal, teams choose odd hours—starting at 2 p.m., for example, and working till 11 p.m.—to avoid rush hour. If all of us worked less or chose different work hours, Beltline traffic would ease.

2. Madison’s carbon footprint would decrease. The Center for Economic and Policy Research (cepr.net) found that if Americans reduced their working hours to European levels we could reduce our carbon output and our use of energy by about twenty-five percent through lowered consumption, reuse and recycling, more time for lower energy transport such as walking, bicycling and public transit, less commuting and reduced energy use in buildings and production.

3. Fewer mistakes would occur. In the 1920s Henry Ford discovered that working his men beyond a forty-hour week invited accidents—even death—on the assembly line. In the 1950s, Walt Disney made a similar discovery: when working beyond forty hours, his animators made costly mistakes. Today, SAS in Cary, N.C., enforces a thirty-five-hour workweek because computer programmers who work longer hours write sloppy code, which requires costly patches and recalls.

4. Our inner Buddha would nod, “Namaste.” Mary Pipher in her book Seeking Peace writes, “In all my years as a therapist, I have never seen people as rushed and distracted as they are now. Everyone is too busy all the time. We have become a nation of multi-taskers. By definition, multi-tasking means the mind is divided and not fully focused. [On the other hand] a very simple definition of mindfulness is doing one thing at a time.”

Here’s to greater work-life balance for us all.

To share your work-life balance tips on Twitter and see what others have to offer, tweet to #lwbal.

Rebecca Ryan tries to bring Buddha-mind to her work as 2EO of Next Generation Consulting in Madison.

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