The most challenging thing to deal with at a any job is balancing a personal life with the demands of the job. This is something that is especially difficult in a professional services setting, where client demands make the job unpredictable and very stressful. This is not only a problem for individual consultants who oftentimes have to juggle a myriad number of duties and tasks along with a hectic travel schedule, this is a particularly important problem for the firm, which depends on motivated workers to put in the extra time and effort for the client and for recruiting.
It’s no wonder that most firms have evolved different means of helping workers strike a healthy equilibrium. I happen to be very lucky in that my current case team has two mechanisms in place to ensure that, although our work may not always let us have as much free time as we want, we will always be mindful of maintaining a balance between personal life and work.
1. Ombudsman – A Swedish word, ombudsman means “man of the people”, a position in many European governments who’s role is to represent the interests of the public. What the ombudsman does in the team setting is to act as a constant link between the “people” (aka the poor working grunts) and the team management, presenting concerns about (a) what management should continue doing, (b) what it should consider doing, and (c) what it should stop doing. This is done on a weekly basis, with the ombudsperson presenting the results at team meetings for candid discussion.
Although I was skeptical at first when our Swedish transfer brought up the idea, I am very happy to admit that it has been a success; management has been very responsive to team member requests, and the team members have presented valuable suggestions to improving work-life balance.
2. Virtual Babies – The idea of “virtual babies” originated when a new parent asked if it would be possible for him to make it home everyday by a certain time to be with his baby. This led to concerns of fairness amongst the younger folk who lacked such “trappings” (read: they’re single and/or childless), and the concept of a “virtual baby” was born — something key to work-life balance which the case team could track on a weekly basis to quantitatively show how the case team was doing on lifestyle sustainability from week to week.
On my current team, despite the abundance of team members with very young children, the virtual babies have all tended to be exercise-related. Each member sets a specific, but reasonable goal (e.g. “my virtual baby will be ‘fed’ if I work out 3 times during the week”), and his or her progress tracked each week. As my team’s “virtual nanny” (the individual responsible for tracking these scores), it is my duty to not only present to the team management how well the team is doing on any given week (to alert to management if there are problems), but to also present suggestions for how to handle work-life balance, and to determine if any individual is on track to having a dangerously unsustainable work-life balance. The exercise has been interesting, not in that too many valuable insights have come from it, but from it focusing every individual on ways to change our work patterns so that we can better “tend” to the priorities in our personal lives.
The cool thing about these suggestions is not only that they work, but that they are not specific to consulting. They can be applied to any work setting. The only critical “must haves” for these to work are:
- Team members have to take it seriously. Virtual baby scores and ombudspeople are useless if people do not accurately report their scores, consistently contribute comments, and carefully consider meaningful suggestions for management to consider.
- Management needs to show a credible commitment to sustainable lifestyle. Paying lip service to the ombudsperson or the virtual baby scores without actually thinking about them and carefully considering and implementing suggestions will mean that these efforts are a sham.
- Reasonable expectations. At the end of the day, there has to be recognition that work is not vacation. One can’t expect virtual babies to deliver a work environment in which everyone works fewer hours, but is paid more, and delivers more impact. What it can do is help track when problems arise, or when management is doing a good job, and that is an important distinction to make.
Does anyone else out there have any useful work-life balance suggestions?