A Future For Work-Life Balance

Most people who have worked in corporate America are probably very familiar with the term work-life balance. Probably only a fraction of those people have actually experienced it. The Wall Street Journal today reports that former General Electric CEO, and all-around business guru, Jack Welch thinks work-life balance is a fiction -- if you want to be at the top of your game. I think Welch is right for his generation, but as technology continues to advance, so should work-life balance.

Welch's comments seem to be mostly directed at women who might attempt to balance high-powered careers with the motherly duties of raising a family. Welch essentially says you can't do both:

"There's no such thing as work-life balance," Mr. Welch told the Society for Human Resource Management's annual conference in New Orleans on June 28. "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."

Mr. Welch said those who take time off for family could be passed over for promotions if "you're not there in the clutch."

First, let's not be too hard on Welch for singling out women, because I doubt he means to. He was just speaking in context where he was asked about women. I'm sure Welch would agree that a married mother's husband could take on the majority of parenting duties if she chooses to put her career first. That's not his point.

Welch's logic actually couldn't be more obvious: if you have to spend more time in the office cultivating a career, then you will have less time to spend at home, cultivating a family. Time is a scarce resource. Thus, opportunity costs are involved.

Yet, I think technology has something to say about that. With each day that passes, the necessity of actually being in an office diminishes. Unless you work in a factory or some other labor-intensive job, where you do your work doesn't really matter. This is especially relevant to executives who spend their lives in meetings, writing memos or planning corporate strategy.

Any job that can allow employees to work from home will increasingly do so in the years to come. Why? Because it saves money. You can eliminate a great deal of overhead cost by allowing employees to "hotel" offices or cubicles on the rare occasions that they must be present. Sure, there's some technology cost involved with virtual meetings and conference calls. But as technology gets better, that will get cheaper. Of course, there are also intangible benefits to employee morale by letting people spend more time at home and less in the office.

I see rise of working from home leading to a healthier work-life balance for those who do so. You save commuting time, can more effectively utilize downtime to take care of personal issues or errands, and have more flexibility over your schedule. Obviously, people need to actually be productive when working from home. But the benefits derived by working from home should easily conjure up the necessary motivation to actually work.

Technology has also made us more effective workers. For example, before the personal computer, there's little doubt that typing up and distributing memos was a much more arduous process than editing a document in Word, spell checking it and e-mailing it off. That time savings provides effective workers with more time to be spent with family.

Right now, this probably doesn't amount to much more leisure time, because a minimum of 40-hour weeks are generally expected. So when most employees finish their work with time to spare these days, they probably spend countless hours on the internet, perhaps reading articles and blog posts at TheAtlantic.com. But if you combine greater productivity enabled by technology and more widespread working from home, you achieve an even better work-life balance. Sadly, that probably means less internet traffic during business hours.

So I don't think Welch was wrong about work-life balance during his time running GE or even right now. But I think if asked the same question in 20 years, he might have a different response.