Balancing act at the top

Getting the balance right between work and home is a challenge for most time-strapped salary slaves, as family and the office compete ferociously for a share of available waking hours.

The balancing act is even harder for those at the very top of the corporate ladder, that place where the buck really does comes to a final grinding halt. For those at this level, equilibrium has often been more dream than reality - and in a post-global financial crisis, always-connected world, it's more elusive than ever.

Defining what "balance" means is a "how long is a piece of string" type question, says Natalie Skinner, a senior researcher at the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia.

"A good work/life balance is when a person has the capacity and opportunity to meet their aims and goals in work and non-work life domains," Skinner says.

"What this looks like is different for different people. For some people, work will be a much more prominent part of their life priorities."

Ian Mackie is a poster boy for this camp. The Asia-Pacific region head of private equity for LaSalle Investment Management spends at least 60 hours a week in his Singapore office and every other week on a gruelling schedule of visits to New York, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and Brisbane, where his family lives.

Mackie says that, for him, work, family and personal life had morphed into one.

"It could be a disaster but I think that, for us, it is working," he says. "The demands of my job are such that I can only get about 80 per cent of my work done in a 'normal' work day. I am dealing with people and companies around the globe so often I have to work when they are in their office, not when I am in mine. This can only be done by overlapping into personal and family time."

Craig Deveson shares this experience. The chief executive of Cloudsafe365, with a long involvement in IT, sold his Devnet Google apps business to Cloud Sherpas last year for an undisclosed sum.

"Business is now truly global and this means meetings in common time zones," Deveson says. "I can manage it - sometimes the family isn't happy, though."

Deveson tries to slice his time into four parts - with 70 per cent devoted to work, 20 per cent to family and 5 per cent each to fitness and leisure.

"A CEO or business owner has what the average person would describe as an unbalanced work life - however, most CEOs get bored if they are not working hard," Deveson says. "Work comes first in most cases - special occasions are fitted in, rather than all family activities."

The director of the Sydney consultancy Managing Work/Life Balance, Barbara Holmes, says senior executives of Deveson's vintage are placing a higher priority on staying connected with their spouses and children than previous generations had done - albeit in piecemeal blocks of time, or top and tailed by teleconferences at the crack of dawn or phone calls in the wee small hours.

Instead, it was the small scraps of "me time" that heavy hitters let slide when they were under the pump.

"You can be working extremely long hours and feel guilty about not seeing the family, so you squeeze them in," Holmes says.

"What's not squeezed in is time to sit in the corner and read or do whatever you like to do. This needs to be scheduled."

Having the office pip-pipping away in your pocket as you try to lose yourself in the latest Tom Clancy doesn't make it any easier.

The rise of the smartphone and the ubiquity of Wi-Fi mean greater flexibility for executives armed with a laptop to work whenever and wherever it suits - and the continuous infiltration of the office into what was once deemed private time.

Rules of engagement regarding these relatively new technologies were a work in progress in many workplaces, Skinner says. Most companies will try to strike a balance between achieving greater productivity and preventing the spectre of work looming incessantly over employees' family and personal lives.

It's questionable though whether the rules - when they do emerge - will apply to chief executives, chief financial officers and other board-level figures.

While not a smartphone addict, Mackie says his laptop and the world of work are always within arm's reach.

"Senior executives have always had to devote a lot of extra time to work and, in the modern age, I think that has increased," he says. "It is an inescapable fact of the new globalised, electronically-connected financial world that it is virtually impossible to leave your office behind ... If you choose to work in that new global business world, that's the reality."

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