“I’M LEAVING THE OFFICE TO PICK UP MY CHILDREN,” the boss announced, none too quietly, as he skedaddled out the door at (gasp!) 4 p.m.
That boss, a corporate warrior named Robbert Rietbroek, is one of the good guys and gals, creating a healthier work-life balance for stressed-out employees through his example. Everyone should be lucky enough to work for such an enlightened person.
In the age of constant communication, many jobs have 24/7 responsibilities. And in the era of globalization, competition is intense. Staffing may be thin, or worse: Layoffs may be rumored. That insecurity compels people to work punishing hours, and maybe stay later than necessary to appear indispensable. Skip out early to attend a child’s soccer game or deal with a homework emergency? Too risky. One of the higher-ups may wonder where you went.
So family life takes a back seat … again.
Rietbroek, chief executive of Pepsico in Australia and New Zealand, rebels against workplace enslavement with a policy he calls Leaders Leaving Loudly. It simply means that managers make their departures evident, especially when departing early for personal reasons. That way others on the team also have permission to arrive late or leave early as needed. Of course every employee should be dedicated to the organization’s success, Rietbroek says, but everyone also has a life beyond the office.
“What I’ve learned over 16 years as a father of two children is that it’s very difficult to balance work and family commitments,” Rietbroek told Frank Chung of Australian news site news.com.au. “I say to my team, ‘I’d like you to be a hero at work, but I want you to be a hero at home. If you’re only a hero at work, you’re only doing half the job.”
This work-life balance issue is a modern phenomenon. For thousands of years, very few people had time to contemplate family dynamics. They were too busy farming or hunting in order to avoid starvation.
An early thinker on this topic was British economist John Maynard Keynes, who wrote a 1930 essay called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” He looked 100 years into the future and surmised that living standards would rise by four to eight times, giving people the freedom to have a 15-hour work week.
Sound good? This idea filled Keynes with dread: “It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.”
Keynes was a man of his time. One of his most famous quotes was: “In the long run we are all dead.” He was right about that, and he correctly predicted rapid economic growth. But he was wrong about the modern workplace. Most of us still work 40 hours a week, or more. Many people feel they are never off the treadmill.
Keynes couldn’t foresee the changes, ranging from the expansion of the white collar workforce to globalization to smartphones, email and social media. He also couldn’t anticipate the emotional attachment people would place in their professional identities. “Many Americans now derive much of their sense of self, not to mention their identity as seen by others, from their work rather than their church or club or pasttime,” Benjamin Friedman of Harvard wrote for the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Tying the totality of your self-worth to your career is a dubious proposition. Some bosses understand that. They give permission to all employees to have a life beyond work. They limit sending the late night and weekend emails. They fight the urge to lash themselves to their desks, and discourage other employees from doing so. These good bosses work hard, and leave loudly.