Companies in the West must man up and push their workers as hard to the grindstone as possible for as many hours of the day as they can stand – for that’s the only way they will ever gain a competitive edge over firms in other territories. Well… that’s what prominent venture-capital guru Michael Moritz says, anyway.
In a recent op-ed column for the Financial Times, Moritz – a partner at influential finance giant Sequoia Capital – repudiates the work-life balance culture that has taken hold in Silicon Valley, essentially implying that leaders in the region are a bunch of softies compared to their rivals in China, who (he thinks) are bound to steal a march on the tech industry, thanks to their obsessive work commitment.
“In California,” Moritz writes, “the blogosphere has been full of chatter about the inequity of life … But many of the soul-sapping discussions seem like unwarranted distractions. In recent months, there have been complaints about the political sensibilities of speakers invited to address a corporate audience; debates over the appropriate length of paternity leave or work-life balances; and grumbling about the need for a space for musical jam sessions. These seem like the concerns of a society that is becoming unhinged.”
He goes on: “These topics are absent in China’s technology companies, where the pace of work is furious. Here, top managers show up for work at about 8am and frequently don’t leave until 10pm. Most of them will do this six days a week – and there are plenty of examples of people who do this for seven.”
Moritz adds: “In California, this sort of pace might be common for the first couple of years of a company, but then it will slow. In China, by contrast, it is quite usual for the management of 10 and 15-year-old companies to have working dinners followed by two or three meetings. If a Chinese company schedules tasks for the weekend, nobody complains about missing a Little League game or skipping a basketball outing with friends. Little wonder it is a common sight at a Chinese company to see many people with their heads resting on their desks taking a nap in the early afternoon.”
What are the perils of extolling China’s ethos as some sort of exemplar that all firms in the West should follow?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “This is all about a clash of values and outlooks. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that it’s possible to achieve a level of harmony between all the domains of your life, so that you can balance work with family, friends, hobbies and, importantly, health and fitness. On the other end, there are those who say, ‘No – this is all nonsense… you cannot balance all of those things and have a high-achieving, professional life.’”
He explains: “if you accept, as the Institute does, that there’s a case for work-life balance – and there’s loads of data to support the view that excessive hours lead to disrupted sleep and heart disease – then you’re very much taking a resource-allocation stance. There’s a measurable resource, which is time, and the key is to have the required discipline to divide that time up so you achieve satisfaction in all the various domains of your life. By investing time that way, you’re effectively creating energy – for example, your investments in family and fitness help you to be more productive at work, enabling you to generate more money.
“As a result of achieving a more sustainable performance at work, you can then transfer the goodwill you nurture there back into your family life – then your family will be happier, and you will be more self-confident in all the other things you do.”
James notes: “for Sir Cary Cooper, work-life balance is fundamental to ensuring that organisations retain their best people. Non-financial rewards, such as flexible working – which often underpins work-life balance – and talent development are appreciated among staff bases, and will certainly increase their desire to stick around. If there is, indeed, a war for talent, as business commentators constantly reminds us there is, then work-life balance is an essential weapon for any organisation to have.”
He adds: “if that weapon has become such a vital driver in the West, then I think it’s only a matter of time before it becomes one in the East. The picture that Moritz paints of China is, in his view, one of radical overachievement. It could, however, be the prelude to a wide-scale, cultural burnout. Organisations may simply run out of people who can continue to work at that level of intensity. As such, they may find that they can attract talented individuals by offering them more balanced terms of employment, which will enable them to manage the full range of domains in their lives.”
For further thoughts on how to maintain a healthy workplace, check out these learning resources from the Institute