Video calls with pet cameos and crying children. Dining room tables and living room couches converted to home offices. The last few months have transformed where, when and how we work, breaking down the tenuous barriers that separated our personal and professional lives. In addition to this unprecedented access to our home lives, professionals are averaging three extra work hours per day. We’re at our computers earlier than ever because there’s no morning commute, and we’re responding to emails later because we’re not going out. There’s no designated time to “transition” between work and home life. We’re always here, always on.
Even before shelter-in-place orders, many of us had struggled to keep pace with the demands of this always-on, always-connected world. Now, as your business begins to consider its return-to-work plans, this is also an exciting opportunity to rethink your company’s approach to work-life balance. This starts with asking two questions:
• How can we adopt a fresh mindset informed by our recent work-from-home experience?
• What would company culture look like if we strove for work-life effectiveness rather than “balance” or “integration?”
There’s no time like the present to hit the reset button. Doing so can motivate and reenergize employees, keeping them engaged, productive and inspired whether they’re at home or back in the office.
Shifting The Mindset: Why Work-Life Balance And Work-Life Integration Fail
Describing the relationship between our professional and personal lives has always been tricky. Getting this description right is essential because it sets the tone for how our companies and teams prioritize, either unlocking new levels of success or leaving us exhausted and overworked.
Work-life balance artificially separates our professional and personal lives, firmly delineating between when we’re “on” in the office and “off” at home. But in a world where we’re just one phone glance away from email alerts and Slack notifications, this approach hasn’t worked for a long time. It’s no surprise that management consultants like to talk about work-life integration. But if our recent work-from-home experiment is any indication, constant connectivity does not always translate to higher quality outputs.
I want to posit a third perspective: work-life effectiveness.
Balance implies there’s a magic formula for dedicating a fixed amount of time to work and personal needs, and that perfecting this formula unlocks success. Integration implies a seamless flow between work and life — jumping from school drop-off to a conference call to a midday workout to a team presentation without missing a beat — but fails to consider the toll that always being on has on our mental well-being. Work-life effectiveness is about aligning personal and professional priorities in a way that’s energizing and brings greater clarity and focus to both.
Making The Change To Work-Life Effectiveness
1. Lead by example. While more companies are offering flexible work options and paid family leave, research finds that employees can be reluctant to take advantage of these offerings. For example, McKinsey research found that over half of law firm employees worry that participating in a flexible work program would negatively affect their career. Real change requires a company culture shift that starts with leadership — both executive-level and direct supervisors — modeling this behavior for employees to remove any stigma.
2. Prioritize collaboration time (and collaborative workspace). Technology, no matter how good, cannot replace the community, camaraderie and shared purpose the right workplace environment fosters. As your company considers the best way to bring teams back to the office safely, an additional consideration is how your workspace can have the greatest impact on business goals. Even before the pandemic, many businesses had begun shifting to more flexible work hours, recognizing that the quantity of time spent in the office did not always equate with work quality. Now, there’s an opportunity to take this one step further, rethinking workspace layouts to support more collaborative teamwork while maintaining safe physical distancing. This should be done concurrently with policies that allow employees to work from home on days when they’re focused on executing solo tasks, empowering employees with the autonomy to choose when and where to work and maximizing their effectiveness.
3. Manage with empathy. Would you let a team member take a personal day to go to the movies? One of my colleagues, Aaron Silbert, has a story about how he let a team member do just this. His decision stems from a core belief at our company, Lucas Group: We must look out for our people first, and when we do so, business success will follow. Empathy is our ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Cultivating empathy helps us make better decisions as managers and is essential to fostering work-life effectiveness. Managing with empathy doesn’t mean the entire team spends the day on a Netflix binge. But it does mean employees feel comfortable acknowledging personal needs, whether that’s time off for a doctor’s appointment, a child’s first day of school or a mental health day. When employees feel comfortable asking for what they need, they’ll bring greater focus and effectiveness to their work.
Shelter-in-place policies have forced an unprecedented work-from-home experiment on many businesses, breaking down personal and professional barriers. Now, as we consider returning to the office, we have a unique opportunity to reimagine our workdays, starting with a simple question: “Will this help me be more effective at work and at home?” A focus on effectiveness, rather than balance, is key to employee success.