Picture your work calendar.
It probably has large colored boxes blocking off sections of your days for certain activities. There’s a project meeting from 9:01 a.m. to 10:59 a.m. Then back to your desk to answer emails from 11:01 a.m. to noon. From there it’s off to lunch with a colleague to discuss quarterly performance. The afternoon is dedicated to paperwork until the clock strikes 3:25 p.m. and it’s time to make the mad dash to your child’s soccer game regardless of whether the report is done.
Some employees consider this work-life balance. It isn’t.
“True, everything is scheduled and everything is slotted,” said Robert Preziosi, professor of leadership and human resources management at Nova Southeastern University in Miami. “You’ve made time for work and you’ve made time for family, but blocking off time like this creates an unbearable tension in an individual where they’re more focused on where they have to be than what they should be doing. The work didn’t get done.”
Furthermore, according to Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based HR consultancy, not only is balance stressful and unachievable, but also it’s not optimal.
“I don’t know too many things that are actually in balance,” Gimbel said. “Even if you look at the scales of justice, they are imbalanced. If something is balanced, it’s not necessarily excelling in either area. It’s static, and that’s not what you want out of work or your personal life.”
Adding insult to injury is the fact that American workers seem to rebel against the idea of balance. According to a 2014 study conducted by economists Daniel Hamermesh and Elena Stancanelli, 29 percent of Americans work weekends and about 27 percent of Americans take work home.
Given U.S. employees’ penchant for long hours, striking the perfect balance between work, family and leisure is like riding a unicorn — something that will never be harnessed. Yet that myth is touted by engagement experts as the elusive pot of gold, a recruiting and retention tool that will cure all workplace ills and make employees eternally happy.
But industry experts such as Preziosi, who has spent the past 25 years working and conducting research in the human resources field, and Gimbel say the biggest hurdle to achieving work-life balance boils down to a single word: balance. The two agree that the concept of “balance” puts work and life in two separate spheres and challenges employees to find a way to make them numerically equal. Rather, the real goal should be to find a more fluid combination that feels right for the individual employee instead of one that makes sense in an employer’s Excel spreadsheet.
The solution, they say, again comes down to a single word: integration. More accurately, work-life integration blurs the line between work life and personal life in a way that optimizes performance in both arenas.
“In integrating, what you’re looking for is less of a precise, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour scheduling,” Preziosi said. “It’s about finding the right ebb and flow of work responsibilities and personal accountabilities. What you have is a mixing together of work and life that you manage consciously based on what is most important in the moment.”
While employers can do their part to create a set of operating norms that allow employees to achieve such work-life integration, the onus is on workers to set their priorities and work to achieve them.
Employers who want to foster a culture of work-life integration must first understand that creating such an environment begins with the individual employee. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to making sure every employee is able to realize both their work and personal goals, said Jennifer Patel, director of wellness engagement for Hallmark Business Connections, a subsidiary of Hallmark Cards Inc. that designs workplace wellness and employee engagement programs.
“There is a very individual feeling and way of approaching your work-life balance,” Patel said. “What may feel comfortable for me may not feel comfortable for you. Understanding that perspective is the first step to achieving that ebb and flow between work and life.”
This means accepting the fact that there will never be a moment when an employee stops and says, “Yep, I’m in balance,” Patel said. Before taking any steps to better handle all the responsibilities in life, employees need to understand that no one can tell them exactly how to achieve it.
Gimbel agrees that there’s no single solution to integrating work and life. It often begins with accepting the right job.
“In my experience when people say ‘work-life balance,’ what they’re really saying is: ‘I want to make sure that I don’t have to do this job that I’m not great at,’ ” Gimbel said. “To look for balance at something you’re not great at doesn’t make sense.”
Knowing whether an employee is going to be great at their job takes time, so setting arbitrary benchmarks such as leaving work by 5 p.m. or not answering emails on the weekend won’t generate work-life integration from the moment an employee accepts a position, he said.
“It’s like me saying I want to take a photography class, but before I take the class I’m going to plan my whole year around taking vacations and leaving work early to go do photography,” Gimbel said. “What if I hate [photography]? Asking about work-life balance before you know if you’re any good at the job is the same thing.”
Gimbel said it’s important for employees to allow themselves the opportunity to try to be great at a position before trying to achieve work-life integration.
“You should do what you love,” Gimbel said. “When you do what you love, you aren’t looking for an arbitrary balance that doesn’t exist.”
Create the Right Environment
If employees are seeking jobs that they enjoy, employers need to create workplace environments that are conducive to achieving work-life integration. Workplace technology has advanced to the point where work and life can spill over into each other’s spheres, allowing more people to achieve that integration.
According to his own research, 45 percent of jobs can be performed outside of a traditional office setting, said Victor Assad, principal of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting.
“There are jobs where people do most of their work through technology,” Assad said. “Communication can be done through teleconferencing, more flextime can be allowed in the day, and it’s going to result in happier, loyal and more productive employees. It’s possible to develop operating systems where people only have to come into the office three days a week while still getting all the benefits of collaboration and innovation that comes with face-to-face interaction.”
Employers can re-examine their corporate strategies, paying particular attention to company culture. This means taking a look at how employees are performing their jobs.
“If an employee is doing 70 percent of his work over the computer, then a lot of that work can be done from home,” Assad said. “Employers should then offer that option.”
To accurately monitor flextime policies, employers must develop a separate set of operating norms to manage work that is done remotely. Employers should create guidelines for communicating with managers as well as implementing technologies that can track when employees are actually working.
“You have to be good at management,” Assad said. “The same things you do for in-office management are the things you should do for people who work from home. It helps achieve integration while still making sure work is actually being done.”
Taking steps to monitor employee performance outside of the office also helps employers to fill talent gaps if an employee must temporarily step away from a job for health or family reasons, Preziosi said.
“If an employee has to take an extended leave to fly across the country to be with their sick mother, it’s good for the employer to know that someone can take over the position, and it’s good for the employee to know that they aren’t falling behind,” Preziosi said.
In addition to developing operating principles, there are other steps employers can take to ensure they are promoting a culture that supports work-life integration. And it begins at the talent pipeline.
Employers can intervene by improving their recruitment and retention practices so that they are finding the right people for the job, Patel said. In her experience, this involves offering wellness programs to manage the stress and anxiety that often accompanies work as an incentive for potential employees.
“If we give employees the opportunity to be happy, healthy and productive when they come to work, they’ll be more present and engaged while they’re there,” Patel said.
Once an employee arrives at work, there are steps an employer can take to create a culture that promotes work-life integration, the most important of which is letting employees know that the organization encourages life outside of the office.
“Provide an opportunity for employees to really think about other aspects of their life,” Patel said. “It doesn’t have to be that now that we’re at work, all that we’re doing is work.”
This could involve everything from literature on the company’s work-from-home program to fliers for the company softball team. The organization’s executives can lead by example by keeping reasonable work hours and taking their allotted time off.
“It starts with ensuring that your leadership team is having an appropriate work-life balance,” Patel said. “I’m a strong believer in using your paid time off. There shouldn’t be any rewards for someone that goes the entire year without taking their PTO or are rolling over the max amount every year. PTO is there to help give people a break. It’s an important part of an employee’s work-life balance and having that understanding.”
Some companies take it a step further by requiring their employees to take leave, Patel said. Employees must take a week off if they haven’t taken any vacation time in the past two years.
Engaged employees are competitive with one another and strive to be the best at their position, Gimbel said. Building off that drive to succeed in the workplace, employers should consider giving employees the opportunity to recognize one another for their achievements in and out of the office.
“That culture of recognition can also help create that work-life balance in a sense that people are stopping and taking a break and recognizing that others are doing well,” Patel said. “It doesn’t sound like a very traditional work-life balance, but it can help build that culture of recognition and achievement, and it helps take you out of that constant grind of daily work.”
While employers will likely go through a trial-and-error process establishing the workplace culture that best promotes work-life integration within their organization, it’s important to remember that the effort is effective.
“Having employees who are happy and feel connected to both work and home makes them more productive,” Gimbel said. “Everyone wins.”