Worms and work life balance

In a very metaphorical, entertaining post, Stephanie West Allen at idealawg talks about whether you can ever have more than one level of work life balance at a law firm. She writes of reading of worms that live in water so scorching that it would kill other worms:

What would happen if some of the cooler worms (those in the luke-worm, cool-worm, and berg-worm ponds) decided that since hot water is fatal to them it is therefore bad for all worms? Reminds me of some of the arguments and declarations we hear about work-life balance.

I have met many hot worm lawyers and I suspect there may be whole firms composed primarily of hot worms. These lawyers thrive on conditions that might prove injurious or even fatal to other lawyers. I am concerned for the hot worm lawyers and the damage that might be done to them if someone decided that these torrid wigglers needed to swim in cooler waters, to achieve life balance as defined by some other worm. In many cases, a cool, balanced worm may be an unhappy or dead worm.

I talked about this issue before in response to a previous David Maister post. It seems incredibly wasteful for law firms, and by extension, all workplaces (I don’t think law firms are as special as they always make out) to only be able to accommodate one flavour of work life balance. And yet, I’ve never worked in a workplace that has successfully done so. Sometimes it works in different departments, where each side looks upon the other in contempt, but if you’ve got people working too closely together with different willingness to work long hours, then friction does seem to be inevitable.

But the question is whether the friction is worth it, just to get access to a wider group of people. I find it hard to recruit good people these days. While I find my workplace fascinating, I’m not at the glamour cutting edge of the actuarial profession, so I have to find good people any where I can. So I don’t think I can afford to be choosy and only get people with one flavour of work life balance. And, of course, I’m trying to work fewer hours, so my bias is in one direction at the moment.

I’ll keep thinking about it, and try not to kill any more worms in the process!

(Hat tip – David Maister’s Blawg Review)

  4 comments for “Worms and work life balance

  1. bj
    September 26, 2006 at 2:05 am

    Hi Jennifer:

    Fun analogy — I’ve tried to explain this for a while to people in my profession as well (science). The profession is dominated by people for whom science is a calling. It always has been, and the great ones have always lacked balance. Forcing balance on them in some way would indeed harm them. Can you imagine telling Marie Curie that she had to leave her experiment and go home? And, as long as there are people like that in the competitive mix, the cooler worms will run into problems in the competition. What I’m seeing in science is segregation — but, segregation has it’s problems, too.

    I’ve enjoyed hearing your views of work/life balance that go beyond the entitlement suggestions of fewer hours, more pay, and more leave.


  2. September 26, 2006 at 12:25 pm

    I think the other issue this raises is what does ‘balance’ actually mean? I don’t know about you, but to me, the issue of work-life balance isn’t about sneaking in my kids’ school play, but actually balancing my life between home and work. If it were truly balanced, I wouldn’t feel like I was constantly stealing from one area to feed the other.

  3. September 27, 2006 at 2:11 am

    “the glamour cutting edge of the actuarial profession”

    jennifer you’re so funny.

    I work just 16 hours a week but I telecommute — that helps a lot with the friction, that I am never in the office so I can’t leave the office, saying, ha, I am going to go play with my kids while you stay and work; and, on the other hand, I rarely feel like I’m leaving behind all the dedicated excited workers who get the fun projects because they have the time for it.

    You will find this funny. My husband is in sales for a company which makes performance parts for airplanes. So there are a lot of blue collar folks on the shop floor, but also well-educated white collar folks in engineering. Well, this weekend the engineers had to work, some big project was coming due. It is the first time in at least 2 years that the engineers have had to work on the weekend. And you would not _believe_ the grumbling. So — work/life balance is all about comparison with peers, seems to me. At my company (located in Portland OR not tiny Bend) people would be pretty pleased to go even 52 weekends without having to work.

  4. JenniferV
    September 27, 2006 at 8:33 pm

    The hot worm analogy assumes that people (and worms) know and do what’s best for them… Ross Gittins has written some interesting stuff along the lines that most people actually don’t. In the industrial relations context they trade away benefits such as leave, thinking that they would rather have more money, and end up burnt out. So those hot worms may actually be burning the candle at both ends, to mix a metaphor or two.

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