RECENTLY, Jack Ma, chief executive officer of Ali Baba Group and China’s richest man, created a maelstrom in social media when he decried the standard eight-hour work-day.
In endorsing the tech-industry’s nefarious 12-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week work-life as the norm for the aspiring, he repeatedly urged tech workers to embrace the industry’s harsh work culture.
His exhortation resurrected gory tales of programmers and founders dying from unabated stress. Closer to home, the case of our medical housemen and doctors who work long hours is reminiscent of extreme work.
Work is good for life. We have been engineered to work till the Grim Reaper shows up. But there is a stark difference between work as a part of life and work as consuming one’s life. Perhaps such a gruelling work-life that Jack Ma advocates may be more suited to young workers who have found their “passion beyond monetary gains”.
Jack Ma’s advocacy of a punishing work schedule is more representative of the Asian work ethics, especially those of South Korea and Japan. While young people are increasingly resisting the binge-working style of their elders, the predominant norm is still to work long hours.
A similar counter trend is observable in the West, fuelled by the “Generation Y” — the under-39s. They view askance at the idea of lifetime employment in a single organisation. They are equally wary of the commitment to working long hours which they believe is the source of broken marriages.
Increasingly, these workers are writing their own employment terms as they turn away from the Protestant work ethics of their parents. They embrace the philosophy that success is measured less by money and titles, and that life has much more to offer than work, work, work.
Indeed, the erosion of the rigid nine-to-five roster is inevitable given lifestyle changes. Employers, squeezed of talent and immigration controls, are offering perks to attract and retain talent. Many of these perks focus on flexible working hours, including footing the bill for home-fitness equipment, time off for marriage and care of their new-born.
In line with lifestyle changes, more than 25 million people in the United States work from home. In the United Kingdom 2.2 million workers do so. Similarly, 2.5 million people in Canada, 800,000 in Australia and 200,000 in New Zealand participate in work-from-home programmes.
There are many benefits from flexible working hours. Companies are better able to attract talent and gain the reputation of being preferred employers.
With improved productivity all round, it undoubtedly will do wonders for the company’s bottom-line. For individuals, improved work-life balance is about having more time for prioritising one’s health.
As they say, health is wealth. Flexi hours too allow for better family life and child care. Steve Jobs expressed regret at the end of his life for not spending much time with his family given his busy work schedule: “I wanted my kids to know me. I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.”
How does work-life balance square up in Malaysia, especially in the public service? Last month, the public service instituted improvements to its flexi hours — introduced 20 years ago — for its federal employees in selected states. The system now allows them to clock-in anytime between 7.30am and 8.30am and requires them to put in nine hours of work without overtime.
Since 2015, the Works Ministry has experimented with home-based work programmes involving staff in the civil engineering, structural and bridges, architects and materials survey programmes.
The Human Resources Ministry has followed suit. Its programme encourages public and private-sector employees to work part-time or work from home. Its home-based work programme has benefited some 2,320 housewives and 440 single mothers.
Such programmes provide opportunities for employees, especially women, to participate in the workforce. It is flexible, less stressful, and frees travel time. The programme is also beneficial to the disabled who are unemployed. Most of them have the capabilities and skills that can be usefully applied in gainful employment. However, their physical impairment prevents them from doing so.
Life is all about the choices we make and what we do to make those choices work. So, too, in the case of flexible work hours. Flexible hours are no guarantee that employees work-life balance will improve.
Smartphones that enable us to work from anywhere upset this balance. Witness the growing number of people who take their mobile phones with them to sleep.
When I was a student in Europe, I used to wear a T-shirt with the caption “Choose Life” emblazoned across it. I did not know then what it truly signified. Now, in the context of work-life balance, the caption hits home. There is a saying that no one on the deathbed ever regretted spending less time in office. So, if you want to know where the balance lies, choose life!
The writer is a former public servant and lectures at the Graduate School of Business, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia