It's an age-old conundrum: In the race up the corporate ladder, must one sacrifice his or her personal life to make it to the top?
These days, project managers can rely on a full array of technology—from BlackBerrys to PDAs—in their quest to be everywhere, all the time. That has made the lines between work and home a messy blur, and, essentially, balancing the two has gone out of style.
Yet the risks to being constantly plugged in—namely burnout and a lack of quality personal time—may outweigh the positives to all that connectivity. And today, a new mindset, led by younger project managers, is settling in.
“A clear distinction between work and private life is the way forward,” says Andreas Perez-Madsen, a 31-year old project engineer for Maersk Drilling, Copenhagen, Denmark. “This approach is healthier. You need to have time to disconnect—with sports or some other hobby—and not spend all your time at the office.”
Convincing veteran project managers to switch their work styles, however, is easier said than done. “[The younger generation's] approach can be at odds with older generations,” says Jonathan Rubinsztein, co-CEO, Red Rock Consulting, Sydney, Australia. “The younger generation sees that output is everything, and how you get there is less important. On the other hand, [older workers] seem to feel like the journey of work is more important, and the outcome is a consequence of the work journey.”
The truth is, the perfect balance probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Born to be Wired
Workers born after 1977 are about 76 million strong in North America. In the United States, they make up about 20 percent of the current workforce. In 2006, they accounted for 16 percent of Mexico's population. Throughout Europe, they represent 11 percent, and according to United Nations figures, by 2015 these workers will make up 36 percent of China's population.
But the sheer numbers aren't the only thing setting this generation apart from its predecessors. Their technological prowess is unprecedented. Younger workers tend to prefer e-mail to the telephone and online shopping to brick-and-mortar stores. They've been plugged into the internet since learning to operate a keyboard and mouse, and their underlying mission seems to be to use technology to strike a better balance between work and life.
“[My generation] tries to use technology as a servant, so they don't have to be a slave to their job,” says Mr. Perez-Madsen.
Older workers, on the other hand, seem to use technology to work more, not less, says Lonnie Pacelli, the author of The Project Management Advisor: 18 Major Project Screw-ups, and How to Cut Them off at the Pass [Prentice Hall, 2004].
Mr. Pacelli, who is in his 40s, admits he's a recovering workaholic who used to work 70 hours a week. Although he just purchased a new smart phone, he's making a conscious effort to switch it off and not let his work life take over his personal life. “Veteran project managers have to be careful because technology enables them to work all the time,” he says.
Mr. Pacelli claims his generation believes longer hours and harder work equates to a quicker and higher climb up the corporate ladder. On the other side, the younger generation tends to believe it's the deliverable that matters, not the time you spend working on it. So when a deadline draws near, they'll put in the extra effort, work late nights and even weekends, to make sure the project is delivered, says Mr. Pacelli.
“Both young and old generations will work hard to meet a deadline,” he says. “The difference is, after the deadline is met, the younger generation will go back to putting in normal work days, and the older workers will continue to over-work themselves.”
Putting In the Hours
Younger employees typically argue that using laptops and BlackBerrys to log into the office is the same thing as going in. But the philosophy often puts them at odds with more seasoned veterans.
“If a team member isn't around the office,” Mr. Pacelli says, “it's more difficult for the team to deliver, especially when a project is moving fast.”
Because of their approach to working where and whenever they like, younger workers are often seen as refusing to roll up their sleeves and put in a hard day's work.
“This is a misconception,” says Mr. Pacelli, who had an “aha moment” a couple years ago when he was called in to work on a project spiraling out of control. The hundred-person team was made up of a cross-section of generations. And Mr. Pacelli, who'd heard the rumblings about the younger generation's approach to work, was worried not all the team members would put in the long hours necessary to deliver the project. What he learned, though, is that “[the younger generation] works just as hard as any other generation when the chips are down and there's a deadline to meet,” he says.
Cyril Pospíŝíl, a 27-year-old project management Ph.D. candidate at Czech Technical University in Prague and a project manager with HP, in Vyskoc? ilova, Czech Republic, agrees members of his generation are not adverse to putting in some extra time. But, he adds, they don't always want to do it the same way as their older colleagues.
“It's nothing personal,” says Mr. Pospíŝíl, “but project managers who are, say, over 50 years old were not educated in project management. The standards started to form in the 1970s and 1980s, so there wasn't up-to-date information at universities. The tools we're learning about now are helping us balance our workloads. And that information helps younger project managers want to try new things—instead of staying in the warm nest of their comfort zone.”
Overall, Mr. Perez-Madsen says he thinks his generation has found a better way to divide up the workday so after-hours relaxation is possible. “[Younger employees] will give 100 percent if they know that at 4 or 5 o'clock they'll be going home to a nice dinner, a movie or walk in the park,” he says.
Robert Gan, PMP, director of project management training and coaching services, Rogan Strategic Management S.B., Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, feels his generation has worked far too hard and neglected the proper balance. “If only we always had the internet or smart phones to work with, we could have a better capability to work [better], not longer, and we could have been more efficient,” he says.
Mr. Gan, like other older workers, admits he may be a little jealous.
“Because of [younger workers’] use of technology—iPhones, BlackBerrys, or PDAs, they can do more … and hence, experience a better work-life balance,” he says. “The technology affords them mobility, accessibility, and real-time exchange of information that allows them to get things done more quickly and efficiently.”
Mr. Gan is IT-savvy, but he clings to his habits of manually using an organizer and scribbling notes to himself—notes that he sometimes loses.
Although he says he doesn't have any regrets about how he approached his career, Mr. Gan admits climbing the corporate ladder came with sacrifices, like not giving enough love, support and time to his children during their formative years. In the past decade, though, he has made an effort to spend more time with his family and less time at work. He gives credit to the younger generation for helping him realize the importance of personal time and setting priorities to spend quality time with family and friends.
“[My generation] could learn how to let go and worry less,” he says. “And we could learn [from watching how the younger generation] manages their time, sometimes makes their mistakes and yet continues to produce results.”
Ryan Bartelmay is a Chicago, Illinois, USA-based freelance business writer.
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