Work-Life Balance: 70 or 75 – Whatever It Takes

Paul Hebert Culture, Employee Communications, Employee Engagement, Engagement and Satisfaction, HR, Paul Hebert, Performance

In the dark ages when I was just a lad and worked at a large incentive and reward company, we had to fill out time sheets each week. Not because we were non-exempt—but because we were billable. And that meant we had to keep track of the hours we worked on client projects. Most of the time I had five or six different clients that I was doing a variety of work for. Each client had a billing number. Each activity within each client had a billing number. Each client got a piece of my time.

Ah… the days of 6-sigma time management. Every activity tracked and accounted for. Every dollar of my cost allocated and billed.

Except it wasn’t.

As in many shops where hours of work is the currency of the realm, there was this natural disconnect between what the company wants, what the company should have, and what the employee wants. In the case of hours, the company wants to be able to bill every. single. hour. Or in the parlance of our company—100% utilization. If there are 40 hours in a week then there are 40 hours going to get billed.

But 100% utilization isn’t really a good thing. What the company really needs to do is find that perfect number between 40 hours maximum utilization and something less where the employee is on the verge of exploding but doesn’t. Maybe that number is 39. Maybe it’s 37?

Now, what the employee wants is to be able to work the “normal” number of hours and provide value to their company and their client. What is that number? I don’t know about you, but for me it was a variable. I had clients I dearly loved and would work 10-12 hour days for them. Others I despised and did as little as possible to keep from getting fired. Most weeks, the hours I worked and the hours I reported were two different numbers. Sometimes wildly different for a variety of reasons. Some clients got less of a bill because I didn’t want to admit I worked twice as long on something because I didn’t want to look stupid. Or I inflated hours so they wouldn’t ask me to do it again. In other cases I just didn’t have that much to do, but I surely didn’t want anyone to know I wasn’t busy.

But here’s the funny part. My manager had no clue because she didn’t:

  • Care
  • Get paid for being accurate
  • Had a different yardstick for success

As in most companies, my manager was judged on the functional efficiency of the team. And the proxy for that was the percentage of utilization on client work. And because my company wasn’t 100% heartless, they assumed, in any given day there is no way you can be 100% focused on client value-added work. They assumed you should only spend about 75% of your day on client work and the rest of that time is “Administration.” You know, cleaning your stapler, emptying out the pencil sharpener shavings, talking about Seinfeld (yeah—before binge watching and Netflix, everyone watched the show on the same night and time and talked about it at work.)

From management’s point of view, as long as the team and the individual was at 75% utilization all was right with the world. Less than 75% and we’d have a special meeting to decide if we needed to adjust staffing or workloads. Above 75% for too long and by too much meant we were getting a new team member.

The Moral of This Story

The reason I bring this story up is that too often we manage to numbers and standards that have very little to do with reality.

Like in my old company, we managed to the percentage of utilization on a time sheet—a number I controlled and manipulated based on how I felt that day. And all those “fake” numbers rolled up and an entire department made decisions on staffing (good and bad) based how I felt.

The reality is we were simply fooling ourselves.

The work was the work. It will get done or the client will leave. The clients I liked got a better deal and stayed. The clients I didn’t sometimes felt slighted and left.

What we should have focused on was client satisfaction and retention. The hours it takes to achieve that is almost irrelevant. I say almost because some clients are worth being generous with our time vis-à-vis billing—and some aren’t. And that is the manager’s real job—determining that ratio.

So when looking at work/life balance—which is what all of this talk about utilization really comes down to, the answer is… whatever makes sense.

My company decided it was 75% work/25% non-work. Others might see it at 80%/20%—and still others see it as 100%/0%.

It is what the client says it is and what makes sense for the individual. There are no magic ratios (some are golden—but not magic.)

Work life balance discussions always remind of this little ditty from the Oscar-worthy 1983 classic “Mr. Mom.” (subscribers may need to click through to the post to see video below.)

220-221 Whatever It Takes

The reality is, it is whatever it takes.

As a manager, unless I have 100% control of your time both at work and away—I can’t manage your work/life balance. I can only check with clients and see if they are getting the value they think they should. And then talk to you about how we make that happen. Hours or not.

So—what does it take to be successful in your organization? 220-221?