What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “work-life balance?” Is it an unlimited vacation policy, or catered lunches? Maybe you think of remote work opportunities. Or that not being in the office equates to time with friends and family, and being disconnected from work entirely.
Work-life balance is almost always referred to in the abstract. We can use it in a sentence, but what’s the definition? The bigger question is: Does work-life balance mean a blurring, or a fortification of the boundaries between the personal and the professional?
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What is Work-Life Balance?
The answer is going to be slightly different for everyone, but according to Deloitte, workplace trends show that the boundaries between work and life are quickly evaporating. The cool thing is, many workers are choosing it — it’s not being thrust upon them by results-driven managers.
It’s time to update our terminology and invoke some precision when we talk about work-life balance. “Balance” implies stasis, but the modern workplace is anything but static. Workers are seeking harmony. What we’re really talking about might be better labeled “work-life integration.”
So, what does work-life integration look like? At its core, it means the emergence of results-oriented work environments. (People who like acronyms are calling them ROWEs.)
The extreme — but not uncommon — example involves companies that allow employees to work remotely full-time, enabling young people to move somewhere cheaper amid rising rent prices in geographies with more job opportunities. A proliferation of businesses have sprung up to accommodate the emergent digital nomad.
In the middle of the work-life integration spectrum, we find companies that allow employees work from home opportunities on occasion, or clock in and out as it suits their lifestyle. And, rather than an exception particular to the startup universe, unlimited vacation policies are catching on at big companies like LinkedIn and Riot Games.
When Work-Life Balance Becomes Unbalanced
Unlimited vacation policies often illustrate the darker side of work-life integration. Under these policies, employees are ostensibly free to take as much time off work as they need in order to live a fulfilling life. However, this causes employees to either not take enough vacation since they don’t feel they “own” it, or be more reluctant to fully disconnect from work while relaxing at home or on vacation.
Employers stand to gain a lot from having employees “on the hook” outside of normal business hours. Whether it’s a financial services firm that needs to respond to volatility in the Asian markets in in the middle of the night, or a public relations agency whose clients demand immediate damage control in light of bad press, expectations vary a lot between industries. Most workers know what they’re getting into when pursuing a particular career path.
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At many companies, the expectation to be on-call isn’t explicitly stated, but rather implicitly driven by work volume and client demands. A question in many people’s minds: Does being reachable mean being on the clock? Generally not.
For “exempt” workers, almost certainly not. Exempt employees are paid a guaranteed salary, and their job duties make them exempt from overtime pay. For overtime eligible employees, it’s a little less black and white. They generally needn’t be paid for on-call time, as long as employers aren’t imposing burdensome lifestyle restrictions like requiring them to stay sober or physically remain within a certain radius of the office. The game changes, however, at the moment non-exempt employees hit “reply.” Time spent working should always be logged and paid.
Millennials in the workforce are generally okay with this lifestyle. They are happy to surrender a portion of control over their personal time in exchange for autonomy and flexibility. Studies show that younger workers are driven by a sense of purpose, and are personally invested in their work. Work isn’t a means to an end, it’s integrated into their long-term life goals.
Purpose might not be enough for everyone, and Gen Z has pretty different priorities and workstyles than millennials in the workforce. Despite being the first truly native digitites in human history (i.e. they don’t remember dial-up internet), the newest generation of workers shows a reluctance to being plugged-in outside of normal business hours. (Maybe their bosses should download Snapchat.)
How to Manage Expectations
As a business owner, manager, or HR professional, there’s no time to waste in managing expectations for all generations of workers. Start by creating policies that inspire strong work output and employee engagement — such as a work-flex policy that demands a certain number of hours per day of working hours, but provides flexibility as to when to arrive and head home. Consider taking this a step further and drafting a rotating work-from-home policy (one day a week?) or other measure that satisfies the lifestyle priorities of your employees.
In addition to policies, the job descriptions you post externally can be updated to reflect the progressive measures you’re taking to promote employee wellness and autonomy in the workplace. This will help attract talent that derives meaning from their work, and isn’t just clocking time. An additional benefit is that expectations will be established at the outset.
Finally, the more resources you invest in work-life integration for your employees, the more energy they will invest in the company in return. A host of ancillary benefits are being offered to employees to help them manage and enhance their personal lives. Justworks customers, for example, have access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) through Health Advocate that promotes positive mental behaviors at work and at home.
Employers can also offer on-demand mindfulness training and self-directed yoga classes to help manage stress, balance priorities, and promote self-care. Some companies offer incentives through their health insurance providers, like gym reimbursement based on utilization thresholds and data from employer-provided fitness trackers.
It’s time to put the the “work” back in work-life balance, and stop thinking of the two as opposing forces. Integration is the key to the future of work, and it has never looked more exciting.