At one level Amazon India head Amit Aggarwal’s mail to senior staff earlier this week asking them to dial back on the work hours could be considered a sign of admirable concern for restoring the work-life balance of those who work under him. Employees should not make calls or access work emails after 6 pm, take no business decisions between 6 pm and 8 am, responding to emails during vacation was “not cool” and working from home should not be perceived negatively, Mr Aggarwal's advisory said. When set against the frenzied work hours that the average corporate executive puts in at workplaces around the country — indeed, the world — the missive can be called positively courageous, but probably sensible when Amazon India’s global parent is facing a slew of lawsuits for employee mistreatment. But the real test of Mr Aggarwal’s email will lie in whether employees choose to follow it in practice.
Work-life balance has become a fashionable term in the West, a good-to-have attribute for corporations. It has grown out of the convergence of several factors: The paucity of household help, the strengthening of women’s rights that demand that men shoulder some of the burden of domestic duties, and the rising proportion of women in the workforce. It is no coincidence that the star proponent of the work-life balance creed has been Ariana Huffington (a campaign that more recently morphed into a new one about sleep-life balance). But the work-life concept is a luxury that can be accepted in developed markets, where corporate activity has evolved enough to enable employees to make a choice. Those who wish to step off the merry-go-round of high-flying achievement in large, competitive corporations have options of decent, fulfilling careers in other firms or vocations (the French and the British never suffered this dilemma, of course). In emerging markets like India and China, the dynamics of workplace competition are very different. Hordes of graduates emerging from universities, B-schools and tech and engineering institutes chase a handful of decent jobs, with good salaries, perks and corporate reputations, whether in Indian corporations or multinationals. This demand-supply imbalance, therefore, generates acute competitive pressure, as a result of which the 24x7 workday has become a symbol of professional virility (the fact that women remain a minority even in white-collar jobs in India bolsters this sort of work culture). Mr Aggarwal hinted at the pseudo-macho negativity that attaches to the work-from-home option. Not so long ago, the issue of working hours created an interesting clash of work cultures in the Tata group. Having just acquired Corus, Ratan Tata could not understand why British executives complained when he called meetings at 5 pm on a Friday — a schedule to which none of his Indian officers would have dared complain nor, indeed, considered inconvenient. The truth is that the average Asian executive's willingness to work long hours at comparatively low compensation uncomplainingly has resulted in many large western corporations choosing to locate key functions in this region — an insidious sort of white-collar exploitation that has tacit approval on both sides of the bargain.
Meanwhile, western corporations, too, disguise their workplace practices. By equipping their employees with mobile phone and laptops and the like, they ensure that they stay plugged into the office wherever they are. In other words, work-life imbalance is a standard operating procedure in Global Inc, no matter how benignly corporations may choose to project it. Growing competition everywhere ensures that it is likely to stay that way. Which is why it will be a brave executive indeed who chooses to follow Mr Aggarwal’s advisory in spirit.