Explainers

Organizations Must Rethink How to Balance Work & Life

Work-life balance can only be achieved when the responsibility for it is balanced between employer and employee

How do you create meaningful and restorative separation from work when your home is your workplace? How do you “shut down for the day” when the devices you use to interact with family and friends also receive work pings and new requests? How do you clock out when your colleagues are increasingly dispersed across time zones, hitting their own strides of productivity when you’re trying to either get started or wind down? How do you maintain boundaries when others aren’t, and when your workplace norms feel as if they implicitly stress continual over-commitment? Ultimately, how do you “balance” work when it’s become a persistent state versus a structured activity?

The answer (spoiler) is: You can’t. Not alone.

It’s no surprise that one study found that the pandemic work-from-home day has increased by as much as 2.5 hours. In March, the Wall Street Journal published an article under the headline, “A Year Into Remote Work, No One Knows When to Stop Working Anymore.” A UK government study found that remote workers are not only working more hours with no additional compensation, but the work day itself is shifting to consume more and more of the precious evening hours between 6-11 PM.

In response, there’s been a lot of ink spilled and pixels polished over work-life balance or even work-life integration. These articles are replete with personal tips and tricks, like: sticking to a schedule and daily routine, giving yourself small breaks during the day, managing your time more effectively, heading outside for fresh air, and planning time off, even if it’s not time physically away. These are fine tips to follow, but they’re missing at least half the picture: the organization’s responsibility.

In recent decades, work-life balance has been seen as a responsibility shouldered foremost by the employee, but this wasn’t always the case. The term was coined by the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970’s and 80’s to champion policies, like flexible work schedules and maternity leave, that would allow women to pursue a career while also caregiving at home. Moreover, their movement was the continuation of decades-long pushes for greater rights for workers, including the hard-won eight-hour workday that so many of us no longer recognize.

As the 80’s marched indulgently on, and America embraced a more individualistic aesthetic, the term shifted from seeking either federal regulations or strict workplace policies to become a cult of self-help (or worse, a cult of “hustle” that called for an obliteration of the distinction between work and leisure). As work in developed countries has become predominantly knowledge-based, employers have benefited from, and quietly allowed, the work day to expand, and for work to increasingly infiltrate all other aspects 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:

  1. Setting clear priorities, manageable schedules, and reasonable expectations. Ambiguous needs, impossible “stretch” goals, and arbitrary deadlines contribute to needless overwork, which makes it all the more difficult to rally folks when the occasional extra effort is actually needed. If, repeatedly, estimates are under-scoped and goals are overly ambitious, we recommend a full interdisciplinary Retrospective meeting to share lessons learned and identify improvements to plan more effectively in the future.
  2. Respectfully assessing employee workload and well-being. Instead of micro-managing or obsessing over time worked, managers should be focused on the outcomes achieved—including employee well-being. We recommend that managers inquire, with respect and a desire for understanding, about each employee’s workload in their weekly or biweekly 1:1s. Managers should help their staff prioritize and find ways to manage their time more effectively. If overwork is endemic to a team, it may require a more thorough time and process study to determine where efficiencies can be gained.
  3. 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.
  4. Reducing distraction and unnecessary bureaucracy. Companies have a responsibility to ensure their workers can focus on their tasks and aren’t inundated with meaningless chores or bloated bureaucracy. Of increased relevance now, the virtual workplace is explicitly designed to hijack attention, from incessant notifications to always-on messaging, which can take focus away from what’s important and give it to solely what’s urgent. We recommend experimenting with ways to silence distractions at work and remove unnecessary obstacles or administration. Pick just one thing to try for a week and see if it improves focus and productivity.
  5. Developing a supportive company culture. To support better balance, companies need both explicit policies (like ample and equitable leave) and reinforced norms (such as when the workday ends). Given the rampant overwork happening now, we recommend that companies take an explicit stand for balance and identify the suite of norms, policies, and interventions that it will undertake to support its people.  
  6. Allowing for life to occasionally intrude on work. If the job asks for an occasional weekend or an extra hour in the day, then employers must be accepting of when life needs to be attended to during work hours. We typically recommend a “Use your best judgement” policy for employees when it comes to bringing life into work, but if organizations are concerned about specific norms, they should spell out those circumstances and conditions for their staff. 
  7. Training managers to confidently assume these responsibilities. Your experience at work is largely dictated by your direct supervisor or manager—the norms they embody, the behaviors they reward, and the rules they enforce. To varying degrees, the world of work is going hybrid and yet very few managers have experience managing individuals and teams in this way. We recommend that organizations begin now to develop training and support for their managers based on the skills and behaviors they’ll need to manage their folks in a hybrid environment.

In all, work-life balance can only be achieved when the responsibility for it is balanced between employer and employee. If you’re a leader who, in response to a harried staff member, has sent along an article or book on personal time management—have you also reflected on what you and your organization can do better to support balance? If not, we hope we’ve given you someplace to start.

Published May 2, 2021