Dedicated to Zoey Lim,
Aspiring Terrific Mentor
who suggested this subject
One of the many advantages of having been born before agricultural tractors were commonplace among farmers, and having spent much of my childhood on farms,was that I was taught to plough a field with horses and a blade. Valuable as this experience might have been in my largely city jobs, I was also privileged to observe a group of workers – farmhands – and to learn what they thought was work-life balance. And I can say with total honesty that I never heard them mention the subject. They just lived a work-life that logically followed the seasons, the weather, the diseases of the livestock and the health of the farmhands themselves.
Spring saw busy sowing and planting, Summer the joyful – and occasionally soaking wet – harvest, Autumn the ploughing and some early sowing and Winter the hedging and ditching – and if too much rain, tea, bread and cheese under a hedge for protection, with perhaps a little bonfire to liven the prospect and warm the freezing feet. Balance to their work and life was what they made themselves. And if they felt exploited, they moved to the farm next door and their former boss learnt a very swift and lucid lesson about man management.
Was it fair? Of course not. Did it work? Yes, it did. Times change, technology has adopted farming just as it has every aspect of life. Tractor drivers now sit in temperature and dust controlled cabins with the local radio or Blumberg online, whichever takes their fancy. Their wives call the mobile and ask them to bring home fish & chips for supper and they note it in their TO-DO app. Do they know their farming? Indeed, many have degrees in the subject. Do they know their land, the ground that their 16-furrow plough turns at a twenty acres a day sprint? No, but they have temperature, acidity and other elemental data on their screen, with Antidotes to deprivations, Supplements to shortfalls. Do they smell the corn, sift the earth through their fingers? No, they don’t.
Does it matter? Well, today is clearly more productive. Anyone who can handle the technology can drive a tractor. They have little or no relationship with the ground they work. Their work-life balance is determined by law, rights and terms of employment. And just as they don’t know the ground, so too they know very little about their colleagues or their feelings towards employers. So something of incalculable value is lost while productivity is gained.
How do we get an advanced society to have the same balance, not between “work” and “life” but between producer and customer, between grower and eater, seller and buyer, doctor and patient, nurse and nursed, even between lover and beloved? Our present education systems, dictated as they are by such commitment to exams, don’t even consider these relationships. Parents were not taught to think about the issues and consequently never in turn taught their children. Who shall then be the driver of such fundamental necessities?
Business wants what is good for business. Unfortunately, many businessmen still work too short-term because the company’s results are available minute-by minute (even second by second) and arbitrage and auto-programmed pricing are so common that speed is seen as the criterion for success. But we still live in a 24-hour day cycle and broadly within a one hundred year life. Our ability to forecast and plan ahead for a marathon seems to have been overtaken by the sprint of speed, dictating that fast is better. In terms of life happiness, I don’t think it is.
Work-life discussion implies assumptions about the two being opposing, possibly warring, forces. They should not be. At a rough guess something around a third of our lives is spent sleeping and getting on for a fifth, working. We have little control over our dreams, so work becomes the biggest single, changeable influence on our life’s happiness. Making it fascinating is not, as the legislators currently assume, entirely the employer’s job. Employees have to set their own standards of excellent performance and monitor their progress independently. They have to have an attitude of enthusiasm that determines that they will make their job enjoyable, challenging and a test of their own excellence. In the end, we are the only people who really know when we are excellent.
Employers have a big part to play, naturally. Their employees are guests invited into the factory, office or home to make a contribution to the success of the business. They must behave as good hosts, look after the needs of their guests and make the jobs they do as interesting as possible. In this regard, Amazon currently has a big challenge. Their workers feel too much on a production line, which is the predictable consequence of speed over social need.
Businesses are going to run the world economy regardless of what restraints governments put on them. Business generates the cash, it will have its say. In the process it should prepare itself for the impending rivalry to be the employer of choice. That will increasingly determine the winners and losers for best employees in such a competitive world.
And employers have the ability to make work a lot more fun than it is for most people at present.
Time to get to it, we think.