A reader describes a situation: He works for a company that talks a good game on flexibility and diversity (it makes various magazine lists). It’s also full of competitive, over-achieving types. This reader would like to have a full life outside of work. But he can’t shake the suspicion that some of his colleagues are deliberately competing with time. For whatever reason, these people are available for work 24/7. So they’ll set up phone calls in the middle of weekends, meetings in the evenings, and always jockey to be there in person with clients when a call might have sufficed. If he can’t make it, or doesn’t want to make it, well, perhaps that makes these other folks look better.
So, our reader wonders, what can he do?
I think there are a few ways to look at this, and a few questions our reader can ponder. First, does he want to work here? It always helps to know there are options, even if you don’t take them. It helps you feel in control of a situation. He can cast an eye externally and see what’s out there, to remind himself of the career capital he already has.
He can also battle his own insecurity. A few follow-up questions found that our reader had been steadily promoted and given high performance ratings. So on some level, why worry if other people make their own lives difficult? If someone else wants to spend all weekend writing a report, let her. If someone else wants to fly across the country for a meeting and is fine with you being on the phone, great! The client gets both of you, and you avoid the 12 hours of flying time.
He can figure out what boundaries he’s willing to live with. Even in a 24/7 culture, things don’t always need to be either/or. Our reader could elect to be available around-the-clock Monday through mid-day Thursday, and then not on Thurs or Fri evenings, or on the weekend. While this won’t work with all family situations, work/life balance doesn’t have to happen within each individual day. A week can also be bifurcated, and balanced overall.
The unit of “balance” also need not be a week. In some client-facing industries, the reality is that when you’re on, you’re on. But you don’t have to be on 365 days per year. I am hearing from people at a few such companies that they’re pushing the idea of managing life by taking more leave. Instead of asking for a 75% schedule, work 75% of the time (e.g. take 3 weeks of leave after a 9-week project). This isn’t immediately appealing for families trying to figure out day-to-day childcare schedules, but it does allow space for a personal life in some situations.
Our reader can carve out his own situations. After a while in any company, you figure out who is reasonable and who is not. You cultivate relationships with the reasonable people and work with them as frequently as possible. If you need to work with unreasonable people, you plan for this and try to make these engagements limited. Incidentally, there are clients who are reasonable too. While they may like the idea of people writing their reports on the weekends, they actually have no desire to meet at 5 p.m. on Friday, or to go out to dinner frequently. They have their own lives. If they’re paying expenses, they may not want to be constantly springing for air fare when they’ve got Skype like everyone else.
Finally, our reader can be level-headed about this. While it might seem unfair that some people are available 24/7 and use that availability as a weapon, the truth is that people use any advantages that are available to them. If you went to the same business school as a bunch of senior people or clients, do you refuse to use that advantage because it wouldn’t be fair to people who didn’t get in? Of course not. People do what they can. In the long run, though, constant availability is less of an advantage than being utterly awesome at what you do. Being able to stay up all night writing a report is less useful than spotting a fatal flaw in the business model on day 2 of the engagement. As Cal Newport might say, you want to be “so good they can’t ignore you.”
What advice do you have for dealing with time warriors in a competitive environment?