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Monday, September 8, 2014

Work-Life Balance, Lean-in, Lean-out - What I learnt from my maids

At the time of writing this post, google index had 90,20,000 results when searched for "work life balance". My post will be the proud 90,20,001st article.
I am sure I am not going to say something so new that has not been said in those 90,20,000 articles but, since I have to have a say in this topic that is so close to my heart, my life and my head, I am going ahead with it (Narcissism and all)
Here is something I have been thinking about while observing how my maid works. My maid works in 3 houses in our community and her timings are roughly 7AM to 7PM. She has a husband who also works as a construction worker and two children that they are managing to send to school. She gets up early to cook for her family and pack lunch for them, rushes to work and goes back home to again cook, clean, etc., etc., In this setting, I have never heard her complain that she is not able to spend time with her children or that she is not home when they get back from school or about any of the other issues a lot of us "working" women complain about. On days when she has to work late due to a party in someone's house she is actually excited perhaps because of the tips she may get or some good food she gets to take back home. She doesn't complain about working at all but, is in fact grateful for being able to work. She often says that if she was back in her village, she would not be allowed to work which means she and her husband would not have been able to provide the life they are now providing for their children. So, for her, she is clear that she is working because that is the only way for them to eat 3 good meals a day and that is the only way she can send her children to school. So, when the need is clear and the vision of a better life is clear, all other issues of "work-life balance" seem to pale out in comparison or become inconsequential.
For the rest of us, who are truly fortunate enough where the need is not so pressing, are we complicating the situation because we want to have our cake and eat it too? There are just few current realities (harsh maybe) that I think we need to just accept and figure out how to deal with them instead of fighting them:
  • Careers in any industry have become increasingly demanding. Very few professions can truly boast of a 9-5 working hours.. at this point I can only think of teaching (not always) and banking (maybe) and some other blue collared jobs governed by strict union rules. Even with all the benefits companies offer towards family friendly work environments and policies that the government mandates, for an executive who is trying to compete in a global market with fierce financial targets, our day to day work-life balance issues like daycare timings and such don't necessarily feature as top of mind items.. so, if he/she calls an important meeting at 6:30 PM and is forced to do so 3 times a week, there is nothing much we can do about it.
  • If double income is a must for your family's financial commitments, then you will just have to figure out a way to do it. And, most families seem to somehow figure it all out and with the right attitude and some give and take, most families seem to come out fine with few battle scars to show. Ofcourse, in each country, society and culture they manage differently. For example, the childcare and support system in the US is more organized and professional while it is lot more dependent on family, extended family, friends, neighbors and maids here in India. 
  • If double income is not an absolute need, then it just means you are blessed and can actually afford to pause, evaluate the reasons why you want to work outside of the home and accordingly have a setup that you are most comfortable with to handle work and family. It is still important to keep remembering that you cannot have your cake and eat it too and so it is important to set realistic goals and expectations of yourself (remember, nobody can have it all). 
Going back to the case of the domestic maids, I find it very fascinating how that segment is so advanced in some aspects of supply/demand and work-life balance and there is definitely something we can learn from it. Maids are hired as Individual Contributors - meaning, they are hired for what they themselves can provide/do, those who hire are also clear on what the outcomes/benefits are by hiring them for X hours a day and the pay is directly proportional to the number of hours and number of tasks done. Now, this gives them excellent flexibility in managing their day depending on a) their strength and stamina and b) their need for money (of course, I am overly generalizing assuming both the maids and their employers are professional enough and don't abuse each other). Other than the maids' ability to do good household work, they also need to be honest, with good work ethics and PR skills to thrive in this market so they are never really out of work. And, somehow most of them crack the PR skills part of it pretty effortlessly and especially in India even without the other two (quality of work and work ethics), they seem to be always in demand (that is a topic for a different post though)
If we correlate this to corporate jobs and careers, this is how consultants in any industry work. They get valued and paid purely for their expertise and experience and in most cases they get to choose how many hours they want to/can work and generally have better control on their timings. Yes, they may not have the career growth in terms of corporate titles and such but, their value in the market doesn't diminish as long they do good work and keep updating their skills as per the market needs. Other than the pure domain skills, to be successful as a consultant there are quite a few other skills we need to learn and acquire like PR/networking and the ability to sell and market ourselves so we always have enough work in hand to keep us as busy as we want to be.
Hindsight is always 20/20, I wish I had this epiphany many many years ago to build the necessary skills and consciously move towards becoming an independent consultant for few years. So, my current mantra that I would give to any young professionals (especially women) regarding work-life balance would be - invest time and energy during the initial part of your professional life in becoming really good at whatever you do, at this time go the extra mile, burn the midnight oil if needed to become truly top-notch, don't be shy to lean-in, promote your skills and strengths, take time to build a professional network that knows and values your worth and when there comes a time when you want to lean-out a bit and have better control of your work hours which you may not get in your corporate setting, then explore consulting gigs. Consulting lifestyle also has its ups and downs, one of which is an unpredictable monthly income (unless u are very good in managing a steady flow of assignments) and so be ready for that.

These consulting assignments help you be in touch with the industry, will force you to keep updating your skills as per the market needs and whenever ready, you can still go back to pursue a corporate career path.
To close, with some clear goal setting and realistic expectations and good time management, I think most of us can sail through those peak professional years which happen to also be the most demanding family years and can hope to get to the other side with a healthy body and sane mind to enjoy our retirement (is there still such a thing?... well, we will figure out when we get there).