Work or Life? You choose.

June 8, 2009: 9:53 AM ET

human hamsterA lot of you were pretty tough on Ryan, the trader who will probably work like a galley slave until either retires at the age of 40 or keels over at 50. I may have even jumped to some conclusions myself. It's amazing, on the other hand, what a little knowledge about the reality of a situation can do to moderate the whole judgmental thing. This most wise and tough-minded comment on the subject comes from Cliff Tan of Sarasota, Florida. "I can't speak for "Ryan" because I have never been a trader," he writes, "but I've worked around enough of them that perhaps this post will reduce some of the heat and shed a little more light."

"Ryan's" workday is not really a matter of individual choice for him, as many respondents seem to think. As a trader he simply must be at his desk early enough to prepare for the trading day ahead and will finish whenever the market finishes. He sounds like he's on the mortgage desk so maybe the first deals in New York get started around 7am and is really going by 8am. Getting there by 6:30am might actually be cutting it close. In other markets (e.g., foreign exchange) I knew traders who were at their desk by the time "Ryan" boarded his train.

And you need to get a couple of hours' jump on the markets because there's a lot to read. All the overnight news/events that might affect trading that day, of course. But also – if you're part of a global book that gets passed into your timezone – you need to know any special events that occurred as part of overnight trading. Your salespeople might have some special deals that need to be done that day, and you need to think about how to execute that. Your investment bankers might have a new structure for which you are expected to provide trading support, and you need to have a razor-sharp idea of how much this stuff they're peddling is really worth.

And once the trading day really gets started, how are you going to leave? Because usually except for lunch you are on the "dealer" (interactive chat) with your counterparts at other banks, your salespeople call over with new stuff they need to do for their clients (either they're told or they've cajoled somebody to trade an existing position for some reason), you're on the phone with some of the bigger clients talking about the markets and giving them your thoughts about what they want to do, you need to read the news and events that occur during your day, you might be talking to the "quants" who maintain the pricing models which help determine the right values (you think) of the various credit tranches you're trading, you might even have a model or two of your own you need to tweak, occasionally you will read some research coming out of your own credit research team or from another bank which someone has forwarded to you. Oh, and you need to make sure you pass the right information to the middle and back offices so your trades are recorded correctly (which determines your P/L, profit/loss, which determines your year-end bonus), and that you pass your book onto the next timezone accurately...

I'm with Bing in that there seems to be quite a bit of Jerry-Springer like quality in some of the posts here. I'm reasonably certain work-life balance has come up before in the "Ryan" household and while I can certainly understand how some fathers throw away their families in the name of work, I think the ethos and common sense of an earlier generation – that you don't snap to judgment about how another man is raising his children, e.g. – might be far more appropriate.

Good stuff, huh? Thanks, Cliff. Although it's pretty depressing, frankly. Thank goodness that there's a ton of work going on in the Human Resources profession on what's called work life initiatives. If you Bing! (or of course Google (GOOG)) the phrase "work life initiatives," all kinds of gooey stuff about workshops and seminars and white papers pops up, exploring the upside of, say, a mandatory four day work week, or how a person can be at their post for twelve or fourteen hours a day and, you know, still have a family, friends, and non work-related bad habits. How? By establishing a proper work life balance, of course.

For executives, this can be a godsend, as is made clear by a really funny post from Tim, who is in Tokyo, which is only fitting. Japan invented this problem. Perhaps they'll be on the cutting edge of solving it, at least for the very top salarymen. Tim writes: 

I used to work for Merrill (MER) in Tokyo and they had the fabled work life balance initiative, which means that us grunts got to continue working weekends and sometimes 24 hours straight, while the managers flew around to run marathons or take care of their soccer clubs or other pursuits like taking university courses. Overall there was work life balance but somewhat skewed, we worked like dogs and the mangers had a nice life. No wonder the place self destructed.

Personally, I kind of like that balance. As a manager, I mean. You work. I have a life. Nothing wrong with that.

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