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  • Vaishali Dhar

Is work-life balance only a myth?

Recently the founder of Chinese multinational conglomerate Alibaba, Jack Ma, added fresh fuel to a fire that has been burning strong for many years now, when he espoused a concept called ‘996’. This refers to work hours from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week; employees who work even longer hours would get the ‘rewards of hard work’. “If we find things we like, 996 is not a problem,” wrote Jack Ma in a blog on Chinese social media site Weibo. “If you don’t like (your work), every minute is torture,” his blog said.

His words would be anathema to proponents of a term that has become rather fashionable – ‘work-life balance’. Many individuals, companies and even countries are espousing lesser work hours in favour of more productivity and better work-life balance. This becomes all the more important for women, who shoulder both domestic and professional burdens.

But whatever anyone might advocate, we need to understand that humans cannot be like machines, switching on and off. If there are pressing professional issues, we attend to them on our off days, just like we attend to personal and domestic issues while at work. Whether it’s office work or personal chores and responsibilities, we need to get them all done. Having strict hours designated for both becomes impossible, calling for terms like ‘work-life balance’, which essentially means balancing both aspects of our life to ensure maximum productivity and maximum personal time.

And, achieving it works differently for everyone at a personal level. However, favourable rules can certainly go a long way. For instance, the European Union’s top court recently ruled that EU countries must make employers set up a system to measure the time each worker puts into work everyday. This move not only ensures discipline and productivity at work, but also checks forced and unpaid overtime.

For many, the term work-life balance may just be a figure of speech, but Jaideep Ghosh, partner at KPMG India, is of the opinion that this balance has famously been described as “at best an elusive deal and at worst a complete myth”. “I have reservations about the term, the way it is usually understood, i.e. work is dull and life is all fun. Work is part of our lives. If we look at the balance from this perspective, it appears to be a question of integrating various parts of our lives. Work is an important constituent of our lives; so are home (family), community and self,” he says, adding, “The point is to integrate these elements in a harmonious way rather than striving for an ‘equal-balance’ on a daily basis. At some point in time, depending on the needs, we have to focus more on work aspects and at other times on home, community or me-time. It is not a zero-sum game.”

Contrary to the belief of Jack Ma, Indian entrepreneur and philanthropist Ronnie Screwvala, in one of his tweets, mentions, “I feel the spirit of innovation should be creativity and not #996 culture. The age of undercutting through low wages, long working hours is over. Industrial revolution 4.0 is here and it’s about beating arbitrage through creativity.”

So is this kind of work culture really evolving? Is it meaningful to clock in eight hours a day, or ensure quality time at work that results in more productivity than just clocking in the requisite hours? Even so, there is an evolution and greater understanding in managements irrespective of work culture. With his 41 years of hospitality experience, Ajay Bakaya, managing director of Sarovar Hotels, feels: “We had limited opportunities in the sector when I started, compared to the growth in the industry in the past decade. As assistant manager in Mumbai, I have worked for unsociable hours, six days a week for six months. And suddenly after six months, my boss would say ‘tomorrow is a slightly lighter day, take a half-day off’. But as boss at Sarovar, I ensure we adopt a smart work culture of working eight-10 hours a day, unlike the industry norm. We even tell employees to take forced vacations. This helps maintain a balance in life.”

The global perspective

Work-life balance has emerged as a critical initiative to create improved employee commitment, offer satisfaction, ensure quality performance, organisational behaviour, health and well-being. However, there are some differences in understanding the construes of work-life balance in different societies. Debolina Dutta, vice-president (HR & CSR) of Luminous Power Technologies, explains how in developed western countries, demographics, labour markets and socio-economic contexts have resulted in implementation of numerous initiatives to support work-life balance. In developing Asian economies, which are experiencing rapid growth, long hours and overtime did become a norm. However, with time, organisations have embraced flexible working hours and other initiatives to support the cause of a healthier life. Multiple factors are working behind it — the changing demographics of the workforce, with dual-income families gradually becoming the new norm and increasing demand for talent. The latter is forcing organisations to adopt healthy initiatives to retain and attract talent.

According to The International Workplace Group global survey, flexible work hours is a key element. When people can choose to work closer to home or to wherever they want to be, they struggle less with aligning their personal and professional lives. Reducing the stress of commuting, particularly when this involves endless waits in clogged traffic or travelling by over-crowded public transport, is a benefit both to businesses and staff. Now, businesses are acknowledging that in a work environment one size really doesn’t fit all. Rather, providing specific types of environments to different work functions is key to achieving greater productivity.

Mark Dixon, IWG founder and CEO, maintains, “In 11 years since we first published our annual Global Workspace Survey, the world of work has changed dramatically. The idea of commuting for hours to work 9-5 in a dreary office is fast becoming as relevant as a fax machine in a working day. It’s no surprise then that 62% of businesses worldwide currently have a flexible workspace policy. There has been a power shift. In many sectors, bosses no longer dictate what a regular working day should look like. The employees, the so-called ‘Generation Flex’ are calling the shots.”

However, productivity is more important than absolute number of hours spent at work. KPMG’s Ghosh gives a country-wide comparison of how average work hours vary on the basis of country, industry, type of organisation and culture. Mexico, Costa Rica and Greece are known to have longer work hours while Nordic countries and Germany, among others, have, on an average, lesser work hours. So is there any direct relation between extended working hours leading to higher economic output per capita?, Ghosh wonders.

Many multinationals stress on the need to empower employees to enjoy a satisfying personal life by helping them strike a balance. Canon offers five-day, virtual working options, flexi-timings and comprehensive leave benefits to employees. For female employees, beyond the maternity leave of 26 weeks, there are flexible working options and even day-care benefits with crèche facility. Interestingly, the US is among the top 10 countries with the worst work balance — extended work hours and strenuous routines. In Japan, working long hours is a given, and, in 2013, a woman actually dropped dead on her desk due to 159 hours of overtime and massive workload with no extra pay.

India perspective

Historically, for Indians and Indian society, ‘work is worship’ and that has reflected in the way Indians have worked. Asians, particularly Indians, are considered to be very hardworking and willing to work for long hours. But that is changing. Saswati Sinha, HR head of marketing firm Cheil WW India, sees the workforce now majorly comprising millennials. “I believe that work-life balance is not something they aspire for or work for. It is a ‘given’. Without that balance, professionals now don’t want to work in a particular organisation. If, as predicted, millennials are going to be 50% of the workforce by 2050, ‘work-life balance’ would surely be one of the deciding factors for retention of talent!”

Even has come across several resumés that mention flexible working options as one of their top priorities. A survey conducted by the job portal aimed at understanding why Indian professionals want flexible working, and how organisations could improve their employee satisfaction and talent retention by adopting more non-conventional HR policies, aligned with the requirements of their workforce. “Flexible working is being embraced across industries, as well as in traditional functional areas such as accounting and finance. The insights delivered by our latest survey allow more organisations to adopt new-age HR practices and provide unhindered access to the necessary concessions that the millennial workforce needs to work optimally,” says Zairus Master, CEO, According to the survey, 60% of respondents wanted flexible working options. Avoiding traffic was highlighted by 13.88% as a key reason for a flexible working policy, while 6.37% wanted to save on the cost of their commute by working from home.

Interestingly, such demands are actually being met. Gozoop, an integrated marketing agency based in India, which also introduced menstrual leave, is now offering mental and wellness leave. It also organises discussions on the importance of sleep for its staff. Co-founded by investment banker-turned-entrepreneur Rohan Bhansali, the firm stresses on the transformative powers of millennials at the workplace. “In addition to the highly competitive and long working hours, the travel time to and fro add to the toll. And managing work, family and personal responsibilities have become harder in the past five years. Mental health, too, is severely affected. Indian companies addressing these issues are few and far in between,” he says.

Darveys, a multi-designer luxury business founded by Nakul Bajaj, has seen an increase in awareness of the work-life balance among its employees as well as employers across the globe. “Numerous studies show a clear link between long working hours and productivity of employees. Long hours means getting more work done, but sitting on the desk for stretched hours also leads to lower productivity as employees tend to lose focus. The attention span of an individual is limited. Over-time schedules result in dissatisfaction, with chances of shallow focus. This leads to lower productivity. Over the years, companies have realised that the old concept of 9-6 is not suitable anymore. However, discipline is extremely important at work,” says Bajaj.

On the other hand, Mansi Gupta, co-founder of e-commerce brand Tjori, feels that achieving work-life-balance is a fable. “There is no bright line between work and life. If you like what you do, the two tend to merge. Every individual is different and needs to choose what gives you more joy, and then be proud of your decision. You could be happy working six days a week and sad working four days a week. Hence, look for that right combination that helps you achieve everything. As long as you find your work fun and sustainable, your life will be balanced.” At Tjori, Gupta believes in insanity and flexibility. The work environment followed is extremely friendly and people have work buddies they enjoy working with, without compromising on giving their 100%. The employees also understand that they are changing the way fashion and lifestyle brands work, and disruption is demanding. “Smart work as the only mantra is passé. Winners work smart and work hard. I personally feel motivation is not governed by hours at work, but the quality of work,” she adds.

The HRspeak

Flexi-working and work-from-home are some benefits being offered to most employees. Dutta of Luminous Power Technologies feels, “We embrace the ‘empower’ paradigm vis-à-vis the conventional ‘control’ paradigm when it comes to work and employee efficiency. Our focus is on the outcome rather than the number of hours spent. We believe that this approach builds the required work-enabling ethos that simultaneously liberates our employees, while continuing to support efficiency and productivity,” she says.

At Gozoop, the happiness officers are mandated to ensure that employees are looked at holistically as humans and not as resources. Work-life balance is obviously a big part of it. Management and HR keep track of monthly reports in terms of average working hours of each and every individual. However, proactive and corrective measures are taken wherever there is seen a trend of long work hours.

As part of the service industry, wherein client pressure is usually high, Cheil has many initiatives for the benefit of their employees. Sinha adds, “We encourage employees to de-stress through indoor and outdoor sports like cricket, table tennis or board games; take team lunches as this helps in breaking the monotony, as well as break the ice within teams. They get to know the team-mates and engage in productive yet informal discussions. Besides, we have women-friendly policies for working mothers. We have a specially designed ‘snooze room’ for them where they can take time off, rest and relax. All these are with an intent to bring a work-life balance for our employees and we continuously take suggestions to address their requirements.”

Is working less better?

Corporate policies often are based on history; they suffer from an anchoring bias. “For example, a bias that eight hours a day will produce quality outcome and enhance employee discipline could backfire; both motivation and quality could suffer due to such industrial-era policies. Another area that needs a complete overhaul is around leave for both parents around childbirth,” feels Ghosh of KPMG.

With respect to behavioural changes observed in working less and working more, it depends on the personality and the nature of job. Some creative people get their best ideas late into the night after 10-12 hours of brainstorming. Shahnaz Husain, founder and CMD of Shahnaz Husain Group, says, “We have become so used to the stipulated eight-hour working day that one wonders how successful, flexible work hours would be, especially in terms of productivity. Of course, flexible timings would give an employee more freedom to adjust working time according to convenience. For instance, it would certainly suit working mothers. As an employer, I should not be too concerned as long as the work is completed on time and the quality of work does not suffer. Employers with flexible timings say that their employees are happier, more motivated, efficient and productive.”

From a corporate point of view, the work-style reform isn’t about employee welfare for the socio-economically vulnerable. It’s a plan to help companies stay competitive and survive in a society with a declining population. “If we improve working environments, then employees’ quality of life will improve, creating a virtuous cycle for employers. Given the fact that it’s a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, agility and productivity are keys for the success of every business. And one of the easiest ways to enhance productivity is to ensure that our employees are motivated and engaged. So yes, a positive culture and conducive work environment is critical,” adds Sinha.

Also, the workforce today has more opportunities to explore based on their needs versus companies’ goals. “According to a recent LinkedIn talent survey, job-seeking behaviour trends globally indicate that while only 25% are actively looking for a job change, a whopping 85% of the workforce might be willing to make a job change if the right offer hits them. So companies that provide a better quality of life for employees are more likely to have better retention and spend lesser time hiring the right talent,” says Dutta.

Nevertheless, by adjusting labour time, companies aim to create an improved working environment where fewer hours are used more efficiently. Ghosh feels organisation culture is important. “If number of hours at a workplace is an important determinant of performance rather than quality of outcome, it is likely that there is a need for change. Technology, and more so, improved connectivity, has significantly changed work dynamics. It is not limited to work-from-home approach only, it has boosted productivity multi-fold. It does have other impacts, though, for example FOMO (fear of missing out),” thinks Ghosh.

As an HR policy, Canon engages with employees using various programmes with the objective of keeping them motivated. “We have devised a few simple initiatives to spread joy among employees -— good morning walks, where a particular team goes around in the office, wishing each employee ‘good morning’ as they pass their desks. ‘Appreciation’ does wonders and Canon has a portal called ‘Digital Shop’ where people can choose a card template, customise it and share it with a designated peer, thanking them for their support. ‘Passion Red’ is another initiative where everyone wears red to work on Mondays. The colour represents energy, passion and unity towards the brand. The collective air of enthusiasm is reflected in the organisation throughout the week, converting Monday blues into passionate reds,” says Kazutada Kobayashi, president and CEO, Canon India.

So how does one achieve the desired success without paying extra effort and time? “It is not a simple equation of success= extra time = more pay. It is more like success = productive hours = pay for performance. We have been equating work- life balance to less working hours since the past over 15 years. It’s time to talk about work-life balance through productive working hours leading to enhanced performance at individual and organisation levels,” says Sinha.

Future workplaces

Experts see a fundamental shift in the way work is organised. The changing context of work will create a changed response. Shalini Lal, an organisational consultant for future-ready organisations, feels people are moving to a time of exponential change where the pace of change is going to get bigger and faster. She says, “Future organisations will need to be bilingual and will move to a model where a small inner core is focused on ‘breakthrough innovation and quick action’, along with a far larger layer focused on ‘scale and efficiency’. This intense core will be characterised by passion, creativity and enormous amounts of action. The rules of the game will be different for the other parts of the organisation that are focused on managing scale and efficiency. Scale and efficiency are deeply influenced by the economics of work.” According to her, an organisational layer — of its gig/ part-time/ contract workers — will emerge in the coming years as this layer will have the most flexibility of time to work. In this case, the future might already be here. For instance, Airbnb and Uber show us how part-time workers are a crucial part of critical organisational operations.


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