Wednesday, August 18, 2010

5+5 rules for work-life balance

Yay! A blog post after almost two years :-)

When I started working over 14 years ago, the best PCs had 8 MB of RAM and their processors boasted of mega hertz speeds. PC hard disks were still under 1 GB, and floppy disks with 1.44 MB storage were very popular. Our machines have come a long way since then, but what about us, the people? Our programs’ compilation speed may have gone up, but so has the size and complexity of our code. As our server RAMs get into hundreds of GB, so does our programs’ memory footprints. As our productivity grows, so does our work slate. We are still slogging 14 hours in office, with little regard to our life outside. I have been witness to a few horror stories in this space- where a mother couldn’t attend to her infant, a guy couldn’t spend time with his new bride and a son couldn’t spend time with his parents who had come visiting from another country.

Having thought of this problem for some time, I have come up with five rules for employees and five more rules for managers to ensure that work and life don’t eat into each other.

For Employees:

Rule1: Talking of work life balance, we should get one cold fact straight first. As far as your management is concerned, you can have all the work life balance in the world as long as their work expectations and deliverables are met. I am sorry, but you can’t go home early or take time off for your school reunion while there is unfinished business on your table. Your manager isn’t running a sweat shop, but he isn’t running a charity either. Harsh? May be, but that is the cold reality. Make sure that you meet your basic expectation before anything else.

Rule 2: This is important- you can do many things while trying to balance your work and life. But bitching about your boss or the organization is not one of them. The word does go around, even past your thickest office pals, and you may risk losing the work component from the equation. Talk about your situation and workload with your manager, but never vent it out outside this channel.

Rule 3: Gather brownie points to be redeemed for, among other things, work life balance. This takes time and continued impressive work. I have allowed people to work from home for extended periods. I even know of someone who worked from a different continent for many years as she moved there with her family. These people had earned their respect and could be trusted enough with a few liberties and flexibility. It is similar, in principle, to Stephen Covey’s emotional account- you can’t withdraw more than your deposits.
    1. Understand what your managers expect of you- beyond what is written in your job description. There are managers who need to be “engaged” personally almost on a daily basis, while others need a weekly written status report, still others prefer that you satisfy a few numeric metrics on their dashboard, and so on. Getting this right would go a long way in ensuring that you successfully gather and redeem your brownie points
    2. Keep a personal list of accomplishments and “pat-on-the-back” notes/e-mails. Some managers need to be reminded that you have been having a successful career (unless it is on an official performance review form, such reminders need to be subtle- a single sentence over coffee or as part of a related conversation)

Rule 4: Develop some good old fashioned discipline and planning skills. One of the biggest reasons people end up living at their desks is lack of proper planning. Or laziness, which manifests itself as lack of planning. It is bad enough if you carry forward unfinished tasks into the next day, but it is much worse if you don’t even know that you are doing this, or if you are attending to minnows while there are sharks out there. My solutions has been simple- lists. Prioritized temporal lists. You may write your things-go-do in your notebook, whiteboard or use tools like MS Outlook- they all work equally well as long as they satisfy a few basic criteria:
    1. The list must be comprehensive, and dynamic. You may add or remove items from it all day long, but it should be as complete and up-to-date as possible
    2. The list must have a date/time component. It is almost never enough to say “I’ll do X”. It is useful only when you say “I’ll do X by Y time”
    3. The list items must be assigned priorities- at least mark high priority ones, if bucketing everything into high, medium and low is deemed unnecessary
    4. Begin today’s list by first reviewing unfinished items from yesterday’s list. Mark them as carry-forwards so you can knock them off at the earliest while still not confusing them with high priority tasks
Rule 5: This rule has the maximum impact on your work life balance, but is last because you can’t do this without first getting the other four rules right. It is called “expectation management”, and is an extension of rules 1 and 3. I can’t give you concrete guidance here, because the details are heavily dependent on your organization and your particular situation. At a high level, the following need to be considered:
    1. As a young professional, you start stay until late to please your bosses and also because you don’t have anything better to do at home. Quickly, clients and managers expect to find you working at such odd hours. This goes fine for a while, until you get into a relationship, or are married, or have kids. Sounds familiar? You shouldn’t set such expectations to start with. Make sure you have a predictable schedule, even if you work in a flexitime environment
    2. Share your work slate with your manager. This might be a spreadsheet with tasks/projects or a project management system you use in-house. It is important that your tasks and schedules are clearly articulated and communicated with managers and clients, or they assume you can do it all today
    3. Learn to say “No”. Even to your managers, and clients. It is natural in professional environments for people to give you as much as you can handle. And it is up to you to tell them when to stop, or ask for further support (say, an additional resource under your supervision). Another successful trick is to ask “what gives?”. If you are insisted on taking on something, you could say, “Sure. But, what can slip or be put on the back burner or given to someone else?”

For Managers:
Remember that a worn out and sleep deprived team is useless. As a manager, your are responsible for the work as well as for the workers. You are responsible for creating a culture of harmony, trust and happiness, rather than stress, sceptism and sorrow. Five simple rules to bear in mind:

Rule1: Ensure there is clarity and adequate coverage of roles in a given team or project. For example, not having enough management oversight in a project teams makes the team miss the big picture as everybody focuses on the fine grains. As another example, take a project team that doesn’t have a Business Analyst, or the BA is competent enough. It ends up with one of the team members (almost always the brightest, most valuable one) donning the additional role. Now, that person is doing more than one man’s job at the cost of his personal life. In the long run, the person would feel frustrated- some get there in two weeks while others get there in two years but they end up in frustration nevertheless. Make sure that the roles are properly covered, and that nobody is stretched too much for too long.

Rule 2: Avoid hero-culture, which is a sure-shot sign of an immature management. Fire fighters are seen as adding more value than fire preventers. Result? Politically savvy people sometimes start fires just so that they can put them off, while their managers watch them in awe and applause. Inevitably, this means taking on more pressure and long hours as a habit. When others see these guys being “liked”, they try to emulate them with a result that whole teams stay late and focus on putting off fires instead of looking at productivity and preventing fires. Attaching one’s success to that of the surrounding people is important. It is also very difficult, but worth every effort. Even getting the message across that you value team work more than individual heroics goes a long way.

Rule 3: Keep things simple. Do you really need that 200 page requirement specification, or a shorter/simpler version be more useful? What is the value of a weekly report that takes half a day to prepare, but is not really read? Can it be made every two weeks or every month, instead? Do you really need that weekly meeting, with every soul in the team present? Or can just a couple of folks meet up? Make sure that you perform a quick cost-value analysis in your head and cut anything that doesn’t justify itself. Eliminating unnecessary items from people’s work slate is sure to win you accolades as a manager but also free up valuable time to be focused on real work. Specially, watch out for paper work and meetings as they tend to account for a lot of unproductive time and effort.

Rule 4: Design a simple and easy-to-follow process framework, and stick to it. Every single team I saw in my experience that worked without clear processes and role clarity ended up with over-worked, under-motivated people. However, remember Rule 3 that these processes should be simple and just right. Focus on value adds like clarity, communication, flexibility, reusability and redundancy in your processes. You shouldn’t require people to do something that doesn’t add material value. Because value parameters change with projects/time/situations, processes need to have a certain degree of flexibility designed into them. Make them too rigid, and you will find someone filling out a long audit form for a task that isn’t even on the auditors’ radar.

Rule 5: Properly manage expectations across the board. As a manager, this is one of your primary job responsibilities so do it well. Don’t over-promise to the clients, except on a rare justifiable occasion. Don’t overload the team, unless there is a short-term and strong business reason. And avoid surprises like plague. This last point is very important and it tests your prowess as a planner, coordinator and communicator. Did your team member know enough in advance that there is a late night meeting with a key stakeholder? How many people slogging in the middle of the night know that this is short term, and unavoidable? Does the client know enough in advance that a particular deliverable would be delayed?

I have noticed that the more high value an industry, the more high pressure it turns out to be. Keeping one’s life in balance in this environment is not easy. It requires tremendous powers of focus, motivation, communication and assertion. Trying to juggle your personal life with your work cannot come across as a compromise on work ethics or dedication. It is therefore a very fine balance and it takes concerted efforts and experience to get it right. I have myself been guilty of violating many of the above rules, but I have also learnt from experience and actively strive to stick by them.