Work-life balance can only be achieved when the responsibility for it is balanced between employer and employee
When your home is your office, how can you establish positive and restorative separation from it? How can you "turn off for the day" when the gadgets you use to communicate with family and friends still receive job pings and new requests? How do you clock out when your coworkers are constantly scattered through time zones, hitting their own efficiency strides when you're trying to get started or wind down? How do you keep your limits when others don't, and when your organizational standards seem to implicitly encourage constant over-commitment? Finally, how do you "balance" function when it has evolved into a permanent state rather than an organized activity?
The answer is : you can’t. Not alone.
It is unsurprising that one study discovered that the pandemic work-from-home day has risen by up to 2.5 hours. The Wall Street Journal ran an article in March with the headline, "A Year Into Remote Work, No One Knows When to Stop Working Anymore." According to a UK government survey, remote employees are not only working longer hours with no extra pay, but the workday is also changing to consume more and more of the valuable evening hours between 6 and 11 p.m. Same survey HBF Direct Professionals done same in other countries results are same everywhere.
In response, a lot of ink has been spilled and pixels have been polished on work-life balance or even work-life integration. These articles are chock-full of personal tips and tricks, such as keeping to a schedule and everyday routine, taking small breaks during the day, managing your time more efficiently, getting some fresh air, and preparing time off, even if it isn't time physically away. These are excellent guidelines to obey, but they leave out at least half of the picture: the organization's duty.
In recent decades, work-life balance has been viewed as primarily the employee's liability, but this was not always the case. The concept was coined in the 1970s and 1980s by the Women's Liberation Movement to advocate for policies such as flexible work schedules and maternity leave that would encourage women to pursue a career while still caring for their families at home. Furthermore, their movement was a continuation of decades-long campaigns for greater workplace rights, including the hard-won eight-hour workday that so many of us now take for granted.
As the 1980s progressed indulgently and America embraced a more individualistic aesthetic, the word changed from seeking federal laws or strict occupational policies to being a cult of self-help (or, worse, a cult of “hustle” that called for the abolition of the distinction between work and leisure). As employment in developed countries has become increasingly knowledge-based, workers have benefited from, and secretly encouraged, the work day to lengthen and work to permeate all facets of life.
Instead of repeating the same self-help platitudes that leave work-life balance to the individual, it’s time to re-balance the conversation itself to include the responsibilities of the employer and its leaders. Specifically, employers and leaders are responsible for:
- Setting realistic goals, manageable timetables, and reasonable expectations. Ambiguous needs, ambitious “stretch” goals, and arbitrary deadlines all contribute to needless overwork, making mobilization all the more difficult when a little extra effort is needed. If forecasts are chronically under-scoped and goals are too ambitious, we recommend a full interdisciplinary Retrospective meeting to share lessons learned and make adjustments to strategic planning.
- Evaluating employee workload and well-being with respect. Managers should concentrate on the results achieved, including employee well-being, rather than micromanaging or obsessing over time worked. We suggest that managers ask about each employee's workload in their weekly or biweekly 1:1s with appreciation and a willingness to learn. Managers should assist their employees in prioritizing and better managing their time. If a team is prone to overwork, a more detailed time and process analysis will be required to decide where efficiencies can be achieved.
- Fairly compensating employees for time worked. It seems obvious, but people should be paid for their time. As the UK study showed, people are working more hours than before the pandemic, and yet haven’t received a pay increase for that additional time. Review your compensation models to make sure you’re not taking advantage of any team, cohort, or individual.
- Reducing distraction and unnecessary bureaucracy.Companies must ensure that their employees can concentrate on their duties and are not burdened with meaningless chores or bloated bureaucracy. The virtual workplace is deliberately built to hijack attention, from incessant alerts to always-on messaging, which can divert attention away from what's relevant and exclusively to what's urgent. We suggest experimenting with ways to reduce workplace distractions and eliminate unwanted barriers or administration. Choose only one thing to experiment with for a week to see if it increases concentration and efficiency.
- Creating a positive business culture. Companies require both clear policies (such as ample and fair leave) and reinforced norms to promote better balance (such as when the workday ends). Given the current state of overwork, we suggest that businesses take an explicit stand for balance and define the set of norms, strategies, and measures that they can implement to help their employees.
- Allowing life to intrude on work on occasion. If the job requires an occasional weekend or an extra hour in the day, employees must be understanding of when life requires attention during work hours. When it comes to bringing life into work, we usually advocate a “Use your best judgment” approach for workers, but if companies are worried with particular standards, they should set out certain situations and requirements for their staff.
- Training managers to take on these roles with confidence. Your job experience is heavily influenced by your immediate boss or manager—the norms they embody, the actions they reward, and the rules they follow. The workplace is becoming more hybrid to varying degrees, but very few managers have experience handling individuals and teams in this manner. We advise companies to start developing training and support for their managers now, based on the skills and behaviors they may need to handle their people in a hybrid world.
Overall, work-life harmony can only be accomplished when responsibility for it is shared by both the boss and the employee. If you're a leader who has submitted an essay or book on personal time management to a stressed-out employee, have you also considered what you and your company can do better to help balance? If not, we hope we've given you a starting point.
If you'd like further advice on developing a plan for restructuring your small business, do get in touch.