For the purpose of today’s column, I am going to assume that you have a few friends. I don’t mean vague digital friends who you poke or tweet. I mean friends in the real world you speak to on the phone and you are always set to meet “next weekend”.
Now among these friends there will always be at least one fellow who is incapable of having a sustained conversation about anything except his work. Involve him in a chat about anything—Olympics, inflation, OS X Mountain Lion—and in five minutes everyone is sitting with their heads in their hands complaining about the office.
I confess that I am one such friend. I simply cannot have a conversation with anyone, friends or strangers, without eventually asking them about their work and their workplace.
Partly this is me being manipulative. I am just trying to get material for this column and my books. Trust me, nothing in the world of fiction can come close to the bizarre things that happen in real people’s offices. You cannot make these things up.
Now, I have some friends who work outside India. Most of them work in Europe. Most of them work in the financial services industry. And often, when I manipulate them into talking about their work they tend to say something interesting: They find many of their foreign colleagues tremendously unprofessional.
Hold on a second. Don’t jump to conclusions just yet. Let me first tell you what they find so unprofessional about their foreign colleagues. You might think that they are referring to behaviour such as not turning up for meetings on time, insider trading or assassinating senior management.
They are not. In fact, what they classify as unprofessional behaviour is usually:
1. Going home exactly at 5:30pm. Even if the desis are hanging around in the office slogging.
2. Religiously taking their annual vacations even if there are mounds of work at office.
3. Absolutely refusing to do anything work-related if they are on vacation. Unlike the desi, who spends half his honeymoon looking for a wifi signal to email some spreadsheets.
4. Taking time off in the middle of the day to go for parent-teacher meetings, doctors’ appointments and such like. Nobody else has a life or what?
5. Refusing to do anything that is not exactly within their mandated job profile.
And various permutations and combinations of such behaviour.
I’ve seen desi friends pull their hair out while they talk about their English, French or Italian co-workers who think nothing of leaving their BlackBerrys switched off for the entire fortnight while away skiing or snorkelling.
With clumps of hair in their hands they suggest: “The bank should just fire all these lazy, inefficient firangs. And replace them with hard working desis.”
Now, I find these complaints of unprofessionalism amusing. And quiet revealing of the desi approach to work. (Universal generalization disclaimers apply.)
Because, when I later talk to these very same people about what they dislike most about their work, they tell me things like very long hours, little time for vacations, and a general lack of time for self and family. And these complaints, I am sure, are true for many, many cubiclists back home in India, too.
Wait. Isn’t this is a little hypocritical?
So, on the one hand, my friends have a bunch of things they dislike about their jobs. But on the other hand, they deeply dislike co-workers who have managed to avoid these exact same problems.
They are, effectively, saying: “Look, I can never manage to go on holiday myself. How unprofessional of you to go on holiday yourself, you lazy firang! They should replace you with my cousin Jobykuttan who has absolutely no sense of work-life balance.”
I think this ‘hypocrisy’ boils down to exactly that: our fractious relationship with work-life balance. Somehow, having very little work-life balance is seen as an expression of professionalism. As something to be proud about.
Therefore, the only “professional” guy at work is the one who sits for 10 hours a day, swallows any work thrown his way without complaint, almost never takes time off, and is virtually a slave to the company’s beck and call. And anyone who doesn’t adhere to these terms of engagement is useless, and unprofessional.
That isn’t professionalism. That is just subservience.
What infuriates me further is the idea that getting people to work longer and harder is somehow going to increase a company’s efficiency. Exactly where in this equation do you account for your family, health and your well-being?
Of course, there are cultural, historical and economic reasons why workplaces in certain countries function the way they do. And perhaps Indians are ready to commit more to work than many other people.
But is unending commitment to work a good thing?
Right now, I fear we treat work-life balance like many other social virtues. We venerate it in principle, but watch grudgingly while other people put it into practice.
Note: In the spirit of this week’s column, I am going on a break for the duration of the Olympics. Cubiclenama will return in late August.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns