Vital signs - they know where you live

Vital signs - they know where you live - Life/work balance. They're all on about it - Mothers in Management, Parents at Work, even the Government. And 'Get a life' is an absolutely top five exhortation. Everybody is urged to free up and cut loose from abs

by PETER YORK
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Life/work balance. They're all on about it - Mothers in Management, Parents at Work, even the Government. And 'Get a life' is an absolutely top five exhortation. Everybody is urged to free up and cut loose from absurd hours that wreck relationships, from bringing work home, from making your job your world ... '80s-style.

All this when a mass of new developments are making the work/life divide so very seamless, and when work is getting unstoppably intrusive. Mobiles, one-number systems and e-mail all mean that they can get you where you live, on the move, anywhere.

Working at home cuts both ways. There's a group of early adopters who're saying their kit-packed room with its Home Highways is taking over the house, who're thinking twice about it all. They think nostalgically about the complete cut-off of the old commute, the office block, the industrial park, the canteen - the otherness of the whole routine that makes home life into a sacred cocoon.

So d'you really want your colleagues anywhere near it?

The great joke among Europeans and Americans working in Britain used to be that nobody invited them to their houses for the first few months, and then there'd be a small glacial dinner-party in a small glacial house.

Brits didn't share their houses, they didn't introduce their partners at a moment's notice. They respected each other's privacy, knowing they'd all given quite enough to the office in the week. People would live in surprisingly varied ways, with varied partners or none, with no-one any the wiser.

There were always exceptions, though: ex-pats in multinationals, wherever they were, tended to huddle together in the ghetto of IBMness or Shellness, total corporations that provided a culture and a company store, that had programmes for spouses, help-lines and tennis courts for the global life cadre. 'We were in Abu Dhabi together' sounds archaic and Foreign Office but actually it means a '70s posting for Mogul Oil.

The other thing that brings people together and encourages them to hop in and out of each other's houses is a charismatic company culture, or one based on a live enthusiasm and a real partnership, where the tone is set from the top. I know one global CEO whose huge Georgian house (bought for its timed 30 minutes to Heathrow and the City as much as for its architecture) is really a kind of conference centre and country house hotel. It sleeps 30 in the main house and the converted barns. And behind, matched in salvaged materials, is the new business centre block. Rising men and women from every part of this prince's empire can meet, bond and reflect on the returns to his kind of ambition.

And those Cambridge science park kinds of businesses started by people who completely lived it, whatever it was, meant that everyone was in and out of each other's houses because they'd created a community of interest.

But if you're a stranger in a strange land, on a three-year performance contract in a company owned by a collection of global fund managers, should you still have the lads round from time to time?

Getting to know people has always meant intelligence, insider dirt, evaluation, advance warnings. And it has always meant building alliances for the future.

And it should mean you can work together better because you can level about whatever really matters, away from the official blank verse of the mission statement.

But you've probably been hired for your outsider's objectivity; they don't want you going native. And nobody's partner is content to be a passive part of the other's career now. Tory candidate selection syndrome - let's interview the wife now - is part of the vanished world. There are no rules to carry over from company to company. You've got to work it out for yourself.

Once you've negotiated the range of work-based socialising you're on for, there's still a mass of really sticky detail. Your house, for instance.

Is it intimidatingly smart, revealing the fabulous secret options package you've borrowed against, or is it deeply klutzy, marking you out as a local no-hoper at heart? Will your partner make it obvious that they're bored rigid by Lars from global procurement? And, once you've started, can you see a line of opportunity cost stretching over the next three years in fortnightly foursomes? Get a life.

Peter York, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing director of consultants SRU e-mail: peter@sru.co.uk

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