Is There Really Work-Life Balance? [Part One]

Drawing from years of experience in different industries, one can safely say that the plan for work–life balance depends on the individual manager and the terms negotiated before appointment. However, the reality appears to be another matter entirely. Life as a researcher falls very much into that category.

Almost three decades ago, while writing a feature article for a trade publication, I came across the word telecommuting. A few people interviewed said it was becoming the trend with IT companies, especially the big ones such as IBM and HP. It also saved companies substantial overhead costs in hosting an employee in a rental space, as well as attempting to give some semblance of work–life balance to families. In many cases, it increased productivity for the more experienced employees and brought down commuting costs, as well as bringing down the sales of stockings, work clothes, and petrol. Remember the cartoon character, Dilbert, written by Scott Adams, who famously worked from home in his pyjamas?

Fast forward to the new millennium. While working for one of the blue-chip IT firms, a discussion arose among the team managers: it appeared that the office workspace environment was preferred among fresh graduates and junior employees. This could be attributed to the fact that they sought respite from their family residences, preferring the social aspect of working alongside their peers and the opportunity to make friends. On the contrary, the senior staff with families preferred to work from home at least once or twice a week, if not more. This allowed them to spend time with the family even though they were actually working.

With the increasing property prices in Asia, there might be a reverse in the trend as personal property becomes less attainable. Take Hong Kong, for example: the likelihood is that a family of five or six spanning two generations lives in a 700-square-foot flat. Working from home sounds less appealing. Imagine working on a report or participating in a Skype meeting with a client or colleague when the children are screaming in the background.

With technological advances, it seems that work–life balance is, at last, attainable – or is it? One can now take the offspring to the playground more often. However, would it mean the said employee and parent typing away on a tablet or mobile phone while the kids play? A quick look at restaurants tells us that adults and the youngsters are communicating less, socially. Adults are replying to emails or checking social media, whereas the youngsters are on social media or games. In some cases, younger children are babysat by an electronic tablet, an electronic nanny of sorts. It is common to see a couple, seemingly on a dinner date, typing away at their handheld devices. It is, indeed, increasingly hard to find a work–life balance.

So, we have a few things to consider. Is work–life balance related to where the work takes place? Is the environment in an office more conducive to accomplishing tasks? Is the option of working at home more conducive?

In a more traditional industry such as market research, working from home does not currently appear to be an option for many employers. The thinking is often that report writing is better accomplished in a stress-free environment. Similarly, questionnaire designing also requires intense focus. Perhaps the stress-free environment and the ability to focus are better attained in an office. Or, are they? How does an open-plan office allow for total concentration?

Many a qualitative researcher has gone freelance and made a decent living out of it. Access to some data is, admittedly, proprietary and harder to access, due to confidentiality. However, the biggest obstacles are still the mentality and attitudes at senior management level. Managers who are results oriented would certainly trust a more senior employee to be away from their desk but still working. However, managers who are more task oriented or who are micro-managers would face more difficulties supporting a work–life balance work style.

It really is a matter for individual assessment, as there is no “one size fits all” decision that will achieve the desired, and sometimes conflicting, result: work–life balance and an earth-shattering research report.

Article was first published in the Q2, 2015 edition of the Asia Research Magazine