We looked at the ‘elusive’ work-life balance last week. The reader response was overwhelming. It all began when I had to write a paper and make a presentation at the Asia Pacific Conference of the Federation of Unions. Then I did an evening presentation at the Institution of Personnel Management. All what I could see clearly is that work and life matter and people have loads of related issues. Today’s column is a continuation of how to ensure work-family-society harmony.
From balance to harmony
Balance requires equal attention to different elements. Is this really possible? Covey (1991) in his best seller, ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ advocated managers to “begin with the end in mind”.
It boils down to one’s fundamental purpose of existence. How much emphasis one would place on to a particular role in professional or personal front of life should depend on this raison dêtre. I have seen career women who opted for a challenging managerial career leaving aside a marriage. I have also seen female managers opting to step down in order to take charge of their family front better. It is the emphasis you put into each role.
Harmony, in contrast, is all about the accord. According to Oxford Dictionary (online), it is the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole. It is a pleasing arrangement of parts with congruity. A busy manager dropping off his son to school and coming to work, continue till late evening, whilst being in touch with the family, and enjoying a refreshing Sunday with them could be one such example.
I would suggest that there are two facets of harmony, inner and outer. Inner harmony deals with mind, body and spirit. Outer harmony deals with work, family and society. Eastern wisdom is abundant with refreshing resources with regard to inner harmony.
Zen has paved the way with practices such as meditation and yoga to sustain such an inner harmony. Loehr and Schwartz (2001) in their seminal HBR article titled ‘Making of a Corporate Athlete,’ describe vividly the importance of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual “capacities”. This essentially points to inner harmony. The spill-over effect of it will facilitate the challenge to achieve outer harmony. Figure 1 depicts such combination of inner and outer harmony.
Harmonising work, family and society does not necessarily mean perfection. There will be events that you need to prioritise more on office front. Launching a new telecom product or establishing a new bank branch can be such examples. The deprivation of the family front in such cases should be recovered by paying more emphasis on a priority basis, without interrupting the office front.
The situation can be more difficult for a manager following a MBA with demanding academic work. There can be simultaneous peaks occurring such as an upcoming exam, looming project timeline and a sick child at home. It requires understanding between the manager and his/her superiors on one side, and between the loved ones on the other side. That is where institutional support becomes useful, even though not always possible.
There is even a macro level where political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal, (popularly known as PESTEL) factors come into the scene. The influence by the national labour policies is one such example. Sung-pil (2012) reports the need to reduce the long work hours in Korea. According to him, “in 2010, the annual working hours of waged employees in Korea amounted to 2,111 hours which are about two-and-a-half months longer than the 1,692 hours, which is the average of the OECD countries.”
The challenge here is to maintain the inner and outer harmony within the macro factors that can be favourable or unfavourable. In moving further, it is interesting to see how the inner and outer harmony contributes to “work in life” and “life in work”.
Work in life
This essentially refers to locate work meaningfully in the broad sphere in life. In this respect, the twin terms, Niskam Karma (NK) and Sakam Karma (SK) offer valued insights. As reported by Chakraborty and Chakraborty (2006), Niskam Karma (NK) is a term derived from the revered Hindu text, Bhagawad Gita. It literally means detached involvement. Performing work, accepted on the basis of agreed remuneration, with little calculation or comparison with others, or concern for additional personal recognition, gain or reward during or completion of the work.
A verse in Bhagavad Gita enunciates the principle of NK as: “Thou hast a right to action, but only to action, never to its fruits; let not the fruits of thy works be thy motive, neither let there be in thee any attachment in inactivity.”
The opposite of NK is termed as Sakam Karma (SK) meaning attached involvement. As Chakraborty and Chakraborty (2006) elaborate, it means performing work, accepted on the basis of agreed remuneration, with anxious comparative calculation vis-à-vis others, for additional personal recognition, gain or reward during or on completion of the work.
It by no way means one has to leave the worldly affairs in becoming an ascetic. As Sri Aurobindo aptly pointed out, “action done with NK is not only the highest, but the wisest, the most potent and efficient even for the affairs of the world”. A desirable scenario would be to see the engaged employees becoming detached, yet continuing to be involved.
A simple example could be a bank manager devoting himself/herself for the achievement of the given objectives, in a whole-hearted manner, without thinking of what one would get in return. The opposite of this will be another manager working hard on a personal agenda, aspiring to get the next promotion early.
The acid test here is the ability to “detached” yet getting involved, particularly in the professional front of life. The much-published statement by former US President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do to the country” – such an approach is very much relevant to a wide variety of institutions, in order to build employees who are ethical and effective.
Life in work
What I mean here is the liveliness that is required at work. In other words, it is about showing interest and enthusiasm at work. The closest resemblance I found to this is the term, employee engagement. It has become a buzz word in management circles, mainly due to its attractiveness as a tool in getting work done.
What do we mean by employee engagement? Interestingly, it means different things to different people. The meaning of employee engagement is ambiguous among both academic researchers and among practitioners (Macey and Schneider, 2008). It captures the essence of employees’ head, hands and heart involvement in work.
It refers to employee’s psychological state (e.g. one’s identification with the organisation), his/her disposition (e.g. one’s positive feeling towards the organisation) and performance (e.g. one’s level of discretionary effort). In brief, it captures affective (feeling), cognitive (thinking) and behavioural (acting) dimensions of an employee.
From the banking world, Baere and Baeten (2008) tell us about employee engagement at Royal Bank of Scotland. At the bank, they break it down into three components based on the answers from employee surveys, viz. say, stay and strive.
nSay: Consistently speaks positively about the organisation to colleagues, potential employees and customers
nStay: Has an intense desire to be a member of the organisation
nStrive: Exerts extra effort and engages in behaviors that contribute to business success
In fact, the bank has improved employee engagement with new flexible benefits tool, called RBSelect. As Baere and Baeten (2008) further elaborate, with RBSelect, depending on the job, jurisdiction and the country, employees can buy different kinds of benefits. In the United Kingdom, for example, employees can opt for insurances for themselves or their family, additional medical benefits, pension plans, a bicycle for riding to work, transportation allowances, bus tickets, etc.
Among other interesting stories in the web, how Genesee Regional Bank, Rochester, New York, has developed a web-based employee engagement software, and saw significant improvements in employee contribution (www.ababj.com), and how synergy workshops in Taiwan helped to strengthen employee engagement after the merger of American Express Bank and Standard Charted Bank in 2008 resulting in an accelerated growth (www.standardchartered.com) could be noted.
In the case of Sri Lanka, many such examples can be found where focused effort towards engaging employees had yielded results. Despite the scarcity of documented evidence, efforts are being made in this front, with vision and vigour. One common characteristic among the top 10 winners of the recently concluded National HR Awards 2010 was the sustained focus on employee engagement. However, the scope is vast and the continuous improvement path remains widely open.
In the journey of revisiting work-life balance, we rediscovered the inner and outer harmony as essential for managers to achieve and to enjoy. In an increasingly changing world, ensuring inner and outer harmony with individual and institutional initiatives is the sure fire way towards prosperity. We require both “work in life” as well as “life in work”. Manifest reality of an unmet “elusive” balance should be replaced by a meaningful managerial response towards insightful harmony which will pave way for sustainable results on multiple fronts.
“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind” – The Dhammapada
(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is the Acting Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Division of Management and Entrepreneurship, Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, USA.)