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  • Brendan Shaw

As easy as riding a bike?: Work-life balance in the 21st century

Brendan Shaw

"What about me? It isn't fair

I've had enough, now I want my share

Can't you see, I wanna live

But you just take more than you give"

-'What About Me', Moving Pictures, 1981

"The pandemic has caused millions of people to reflect on their lives more broadly, and to question whether their jobs are helping or hindering their pursuit of happiness and meaning."

-Anthony Klotz, Assoc Prof of Management, Organisations and Innovation Group, UCL School of Management, 2022

It was while cycling through France this week that I realised I need to get more balance.

No, not better balance on the bike (although a bit more of that wouldn't go astray these days), but better balance in my life.

Just like an appropriate amount of balance in bike riding helps ensure a smooth, adaptable and enjoyable ride that gets you to your destination, so too an appropriate amount of balance in life helps keep your life smooth, adaptable and enjoyable and going in the direction you want it to go.

I've been pondering this issue of work-life balance as I myself have been experimenting with a 'working holiday' while cycling through Europe with my partner over the last few weeks. This is the first real holiday she and I have had since the pandemic started. I needed the break, but she really needed it - she's an emergency health worker who's been working on the front line through the last three years of the pandemic.

To be honest, the 'working holiday' hasn't quite worked as I'd imagined. The casual email check-ins sipping chilled French rosé by the side of a canal in the warm summer evenings I had imagined have instead been replaced by fervent Zoom calls, high-pressure email correspondence, extended sessions pouring over contracts and trying to comprehend purchase order numbering systems at 4am, 5am and 6am several mornings a week.

As anyone who runs their own small business will tell you, you never really get the luxury of switching off from work entirely for extended periods. There's always bills to pay, contracts to sign, negotiations to manage, clients to call, etc, etc that don't stop just because you want to go cycling in Europe for a few weeks. Despite my best efforts for the months leading up to the trip telling people 'I won't be available in June', it just hasn't happened. It also hasn't been helped that the working "holiday" has been during the end of our company's financial year when clients, accountants and tax documents all need attending to.

So, I've had to adapt each day, but also ponder a bit on how to do things better.

I also thought that having hours riding a bicycle up to 100 km each day would give me plenty of time to plan and think more about the business. But I've found that my brain just doesn't want to focus on corporate strategy, business models and company structures while I'm cycling for miles alongside ancient pilgrim routes and Napoleonic-era canal systems in Western Europe.

I recognise this is a 'First World problem' - millions of people around the world have much more fundamential issues to contend with at the moment, but during the pandemic lots of people have confronted the same work-life balance questions I have.

The Great Resignation and changing work patterns

It's been well documented now that many countries have encountered what's been dubbed 'The Great Resignation' where at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic significant portions of the workforce just vanished.

Workforces shrunk in part because millions of people died, but also because many people just decided to stop working. Large swathes of working people nearing retirement decided to retire early, others just quit the workforce in pandemic-inspired reflections on work-life balance, and others left secure employment to start their own business or to escape the hours long commute to the office each day.

Through the pandemic, many countries witnessed the phenomenon of large scale exits from the workforce as people decided they were sick and tired of working in their jobs. The United States saw 2.8% of its workforce quit in 2021 due to people leaving of their jobs - the highest rate ever. In the United Kingdom Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, earlier this year pleaded with older workers who had quit during the pandemic to come back to work. Meanwhile, studies show the continuing global effects of the Great Resignation as people around the world are more prepared to quit for a better life.

The pandemic over the last few years also triggered fundamental changes in the way people work. Working from home, remote working, digital nomadism, Zoom calls and zero commuting to the office became the norm for months on end for many staff the world over. Some loved it, some hated it and some wanted to keep looking for a new model that worked. Companies are today experimenting with new models such as staff attendance in the office only 2 - 3 days a week, four day working weeks, and encouraging staff to work remotely in affiliate offices in other countries, all in an effort to find ways to give people what they want.

And the debate about things like teleworking, or working from home, continues. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development argues that while teleworking offers significant opportunities for productivity improvement in the economy, it also poses potential social problems for staff due to problems such as 'hidden overtime'. Hidden overtime is where people working from home and remotely end up spending many more hours working in unrecognised additional work due to being digitally connected with work at all hours in the day or night.

Work-life balance: who gets it right?

It just so happens that it was while I was in the midst of all this reflection on work-life balance while cycling in Europe, that those clever people from Visual Capitalist put out a new infographic on exactly that topic: which cities in the world have the best work-life balance based on things like scores on the World Happiness Index, working hours and annual leave entitlements.

Source: Freny Fernandes & Bhabna Banerjee. 2023. "Ranked: the Cities with the Best Work-Life Balance in the World", Visual Capitalist,, accessed 18/6/2023.

It turns out that yet again, the Nordic countries have topped the list here and seem to have latched on to something that others can learn from.

There's lots of advice from various reports and expert firms about what businesses can do to attract and retain talent these days, including everything from having fair pay, working hard to attract new employees, and supporting employees in their lives through things like life skills development and mental health support.

What about me?

And for me?

Well, generally in my career I've always tried to achieve that delicate balance in work-life satisfaction for both myself and the people I work with, where both the firm's objectives and the employee's objectives line up and support each other.

So, I've decided to put a few things into practice.

For a start, I'm changing my email out-of-office notice to actually tell people I'm on leave. I realised that I was carrying some ridiculous embarrassment about indulging myself in an extended holiday and not telling people about it. It sounds basic, but it makes a difference.

Second, I'm working much better at stripping the things out of what work is going on that are causing me heartburn by either delegating them, delaying them or ditching them. Delegate, delay or ditch has become my mantra for the next few weeks - something my global team is quickly realising.

In the longer term, the 'working holiday' model might need some tweaking. Like many people these days, I'm trying to find the right formula for working well, enjoying work, enjoying life and doing a good job. I haven't got it yet, but I'm working on it.

If anyone has any tips, please feel free to send them through.

In the meantime, I can tell you that I've gone cycling. I'll be back in a few weeks.

Au revoir!

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