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Better learn life balance

 Warning: Mushy, reflective column follows. Proceed at your own risk.

I didn’t want to work at Microsoft. I was happy with my previous job, and they treated me well. Working at Microsoft would mean giving up my life and my family, working outrageous hours, and putting the company before all other things. I had many friends who worked at Microsoft. They often asked me to join them, and I always said “no.”

Then I decided I needed a change and entertained an offer from one of Craig Mundie’s old groups. I wasn’t a young, campus hire. I had a wife, a home, a two-year-old son, and another boy on the way. I had no intention of giving that up. I told my prospective boss that I was a family man. I would only accept a position in which I saw my kids off to school every morning and ate dinner with them every night. To my surprise, he agreed heartily. More importantly, he kept his word.

Eric AsideCraig Mundie is now Chief Research and Strategy Officer for Microsoft.

Balance is key

The subject of work-life balance comes up all the time in discussions that I have with devs around the company. Heck, it comes up with everyone I meet. Many employees I’ve spoken to genuinely feel that they must choose between Microsoft and their personal lives. The only disparity is the degree of commitment demanded.

That is tragic. Not just on a philosophical level, but often on a personal level. I’ve seen people get divorced, lose custody of their children, become ill or depressed, and let go of friendships and all semblance of a personal life. I’ve seen it happen to friends and coworkers from the time I joined the company nearly 10 years ago until within the past year.

Eric AsideThe real tragedy, as I describe next, is that all this grief is unnecessary and not what Microsoft or any decent company wants for its employees.

We are whole human beings. Denying work-life balance denies our selves. There are three ways we commonly cause ourselves grief:

  • We let work trump everything else. As I just mentioned, the consequences are clear and devastating.
  • We have different values at work. Our values define who we are, and trying to be two different people is wrenching.
  • We try to keep work and home separate. Living a double life is stressful and impossible to manage.

Words without action

Our leaders have said that balance is important. Part of Bill Gates’ message about changing the world together was “for everyone at Microsoft to develop a challenging career with opportunities for growth, competitive rewards, and a balance between work and home life.” Steve Ballmer has talked about the importance of his own home life, especially as his family has grown. Yet this message apparently hasn’t become a reality for many employees.

Eric AsideAs I mentioned in the first chapter, Steve Ballmer, our beloved CEO, practices work-life balance himself. I’ve met him several times while he was cheering on his son at a basketball game or going out to a movie with his wife.

It is easy to put much of the blame for our lack of work-life balance on management. Although almost anyone would say balance is desirable, it is sometimes hard for managers to juggle balance with other business priorities. Even managers who support work-life balance can send contrary messages unintentionally.

For example, during a crunch time, a manager may start ordering dinners for those who “choose” to stay late. So devs who arrive at 10:00 A.M. will stay until 8:00 P.M., working a 10-hour day. But their teammates with kids arrive at 9:00 A.M. and only stay until 6:00 P.M. (nine hours). Then from home, they log on at 9:00 P.M. and work until midnight, working a total of 12 hours. The devs who “left early” feel guilty about abandoning the team, don’t get a free dinner, and actually work longer.

This contrived example isn’t meant to knock anyone; it’s meant to demonstrate a reasonable case where hard-working people can be penalized unintentionally. If managers wish to promote a fair and balanced work environment, they must apply a fair and balanced reward system.

But the responsibility for work-life balance doesn’t end with management. Bill’s next sentence asserts, “In a fast-paced, competitive environment, this is a shared responsibility between Microsoft and its employees.” Given management’s focus on results, is taking personal responsibility for work-life balance reasonable or career suicide? Within a certain framework, I have found balancing work and home to be both achievable and respected. If you think my claim is fanciful, wait until you hear about the framework.

I can’t even balance my checkbook

Achieving balance isn’t easy for your checkbook, let alone your life. Here’s my five-step program for an advantageous balance between work and home:

  1. Understand and accept your lifestyle choices. The first step is to know yourself. What are your priorities? Does career come before home? What are your limits? Would you give up a parent-teacher conference, but not the school play, to advance your career? You must understand and accept these choices, even if they seldom arise. This will prepare you to speak with your manager from a position of strength and conviction, one he or she will respect and uphold.

Eric AsideMy experience has been that this step is the hardest. Most people have never had to confront their life choices. Being honest with yourself and truly deciding where you draw the line between work and home can be challenging, but it’s extraordinarily important and valuable.

  1. Set ground rules with your manager. Every time I begin reporting to a new manager (a common occurrence at Microsoft), I discuss my work expectations: “I see my kids off to school every morning and eat dinner with them every night. If that is unacceptable, I will respectfully seek a different position.” We always agree that there will be occasional exceptions, but the ground rules are clear and established. No manager has turned me down, and sticking to my ground rules has not impacted my advancement. However, jobs that require lots of travel are not for me. Many of my managers have told me that they consider my strong convictions and clear values a strength.
  2. Do not compromise quietly. Occasional breaks in the usual routine at work are expected, but a two-week trip to Japan would be a big deal for me. When this type of request comes up, I take the opportunity to reassert my constraints. Often an alternative is available; sometimes I just need to go. Either way, my manager is reminded of my priorities and his or her commitment to honoring them. If you compromise too easily, it tells your manager that you don’t really care that much. Your manager will likely continue to ask for more and more of you until you finally do care, establishing a new, less desirable limit.
  3. Use RAS and Remote Desktop or OWA as needed. Of course, there are crunch times several weeks every year. Before terminal server (Remote Desktop), crunch times meant that I returned to work after putting my kids to bed. These days, I frequently log on from home after they go to sleep—not because I’m always in crunch mode, but because I love my job and like the work. But I spend just as many nights watching TV or movies with my wife. I choose my activities based on creating the balance my family and I need.

Eric AsideRemote Access Service (RAS) is a means to tunnel into the Microsoft intranet from home. Outlook Web Access (OWA) is an AJAX application that permits you to access your corporate e-mail, calendar, and contacts from any Internet connection.

  1. Drop the schizophrenic pretense of separation. For years I had a work life and a home life. That’s how I was always told it should be, regardless of how awkward or uncomfortable it got. Now I just have a life. Period. A family health crisis seven years ago forced me to drop the absurd pretense that I could separate work and home. No one can effectively separate their lives in two, unless they have a serious personality disorder. So, live the same at home and at work, within certain limits of decency and responsible behavior.

Balance good…everything good

Being in touch with what we need to live a full life and then living by those standards are wonderful gifts that we can give ourselves. Part of this is graying the line between work and home so that we aren’t constantly context switching our values and our souls. This doesn’t mean that we spend all our time at work chatting with friends and relatives any more than it means we spend all our time at home working online. It also means that we must honor the privacy and needs of our coworkers. Remember, the Microsoft value is open and respectful, not just open.

But if you do integrate work and home, a beautiful thing occurs. Lessons that you learn at home help you at work. Insights you gain at work improve your life at home. Balance yields tremendous personal growth as well as personal well-being. You may never become a megalomaniacal industry magnate, but the great riches you gain will not be so easily lost.

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