Work-life balance is dead and has long been an unreachable dream for many people, especially the younger generation. However, should a traditional work-life split even be something to aspire to? In the age of modern technology, the answer is a resounding “NO.”
Our picture of what this balance should look like is rooted in ideas that are more than 200 years old – a time when the New York Stock Exchange was only just being founded and working from home meant a loom in the attic. The times have changed, and workers’ demands have changed with them.
To understand what this means for work-life balance today, let’s look at how it has been dealt with in a traditional professional setting, why the boundaries are now blurring, and how we can start to change how we measure productivity.
What is Work-Life Balance
Work-life balance is, in short, the division of a person’s time and focus between their work and their family and leisure activities. Balance is often taken to mean that your time and focus should be split almost evenly between these things.
What exactly this work-life balance looks like differs from person to person and by industry and era. In its current form, it started with a Welsh textile mill owner, Robert Owen, who coined the phrase “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest” in the early 19th century.
This was mainly aimed at factory workers who faced working days that could easily be a dozen hours or more of hard labor. The 888 split was born when there were working conditions that many office employees couldn’t dream of today, and people were demanding more equality in their lives.
The problem is, this old and somewhat limited approach to “work vs leisure” doesn’t apply to the modern workforce. This problem is especially true for the so-called knowledge workers of the world – people who spend their days sitting at a desk in front of a computer. Despite this, people have still tried to carve up their time according to these basic principles for dozens of years.
How People Achieve Traditional Work-Life Balance
We’re not talking as traditional as Robert Owen, but throughout the 20th century, and up until today, people have tried to find methods to draw a clear divide between work and leisure. However, this has become increasingly difficult for knowledge workers as technology has blurred the line between office and home and allowed many people to be accessed 24/7.
This is especially true for professionals. There is a general acceptance that getting ahead equates to working more, which leads to the work-life balance being heavily weighted in favor of the office.
A recent study from 2020 aimed to explore how professionals are still trying to walk this traditional work-life split. The researchers conducted more than 200 in-depth interviews with 78 participants from the London offices of a law firm and an accounting firm.
As expected, the participants all fell into the assumption that working long hours was necessary to succeed in their fields. However, about 30% of the men and 50% of women in the study seemed to resist an unequal work-life balance consciously and were actively taking steps to achieve something closer to Owen’s work-life divide.
There were a variety of different tactics the participants employed to create this balance. Still, the researchers identified five distinct steps used in a cycle to try to achieve a better work-life split. These were:
Stop and “de-normalize”
This moment is generally catalyzed by a significant life event such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one, whereby a person questions their basic assumptions, such as “you must work long hours to succeed.” Instead, they reflected on what they were gaining and sacrificing by abiding blindly to these assumptions.
Reflect on Your Emotions
After taking stock of their situation, the participants then reflected upon how that situation made them feel. For example, did they feel angry or resentful about the current state of their work-life balance?
This step is essential since it can be easy to identify how a situation is out of balance, but reflecting on how things impact your emotions takes a person one step closer to solving the problem.
With the cognitive and emotional reflection giving you a foundation for change, step three involves establishing your priorities. Ask yourself what you have gained and lost on your current path and how this might change if you continue along with it. What is important to you? What aspects of your work and your life do you want to prioritize?
What are the Alternatives?
This step is essentially the “look before you leap” stage, where you consider what alternatives are out there and how these might better align with your adjusted priorities. For example, do you want to spend more time with family, in leisure, in other forms of work or interests? How could this balance look for you?
Make those Changes a Reality
The final step is implementing the changes that you have considered up to this point. You’ve reflected, cognitively and emotionally, on where you are, reprioritized, and considered the alternatives. Now it’s time to put these plans to action.
The researchers who developed these five steps clarified that this wasn’t a one-hit fix that a person can achieve, however, but rather an ongoing process that we need to continuously work on, paying attention to times when it might slip. With that in mind, how can the boundaries between work and life become so blurred?
Why Have the Boundaries Between Work and Home Life Blurred?
The work-life balance debate has intensified in recent years because we have been moving away from a person having to be in an office to work and then returning home when they are done. In addition, new technologies have removed the physical boundaries between work and home, which has, in turn, blurred the mental boundaries between our work and home lives.
The Impact of Technology
The single most significant factor in this blur is the rapid development of technology over the past 40 years. Some people who started their working lives on typewriters now have to deal with a hundred emails a day and sit on video calls for hours at a time – something incomprehensible at the start of their careers.
That is to say, we are more connected than ever, and this change has happened in a brief period precisely. Especially with smartphones, which have only really been around for a dozen years or so, we are accessible anywhere at any time. Your manager can call you on a Saturday; a client can shoot you an email while you’re on holiday; your report can ring you with an urgent question in the middle of the night.
What’s worse, many of us actively stay logged in and engaged with work outside of work hours. So while a manager messaging you on a day off may be out of order, we’re the ones who still check our emails on a Sunday.
This blurring through technology is especially true for remote work, which has become increasingly common since the onset of the COVID pandemic.
The Rise in Remote Work
The increase in remote work is closely tied to the rise in technology – it provides people the tools they need to work from home, after all. Moreover, remote work became especially pronounced during the covid pandemic when nearly all knowledge workers of the world started working from home.
This completely removed the house and office boundaries – people’s homes are now their offices. As such, the intrusion of work into traditionally leisure time increased, with one study finding that 70% of remote workers were logging time on the weekends.
Distributed remote teams can blur the lines even further because when people are working in different time zones, there are no “office hours” — things are happening 24 hours a day. And when an email comes in, most people just can’t help check it.
New technology and the rise of remote work means that the traditional formula for work-life balance is out of date. As a result, we need a new definition for what work, leisure, and the balance between them mean.
Work Isn’t About the Hours You Put In
To start with, we must reassess how we measure work. It used to be that if you stayed after hours in the office, you’d be praised and seen as a dedicated worker. However, if there is no office and flexible time, this is no longer a metric against which worker productivity can be measured.
In the new knowledge economy, people blend leisure, family, and professional time, with remote roles offering such high levels of time autonomy that the 9 to 5 is thrown out the window. For example, a person may have a schedule that includes a couple of meetings in the morning followed by a 3-hour walk with the family and some deep-focus work in the afternoon.
Essentially, work-life balance is becoming a work-life blend. Instead of attempting to keep everything separated by rigid lines, people are mixing them to achieve some sort of harmony.
But, if we no longer draw boundaries based on when and where we work, what should we do?
Work is About What You Output
Modern work should be judged on how well you do your work, not for how long you’re in the office. So if you can complete your work, stay on top of your team, and be a member of the company without sticking to fixed hours, this should be fine because work is about what you produce.
This is one of the reasons that interest in shorter work weeks has grown in recent years – work can’t be measured by the hours put in. A trial exploring precisely this took place in Iceland between 2015 and 2019, in which workers were paid the same for shorter hours which resulted in productivity remaining the same or improving.
This move towards shorter work weeks also reflects the general trend that as remote work blurs the distinction between work and home, people are looking to disconnect for more prolonged periods than fixed periods within a day. These complete disconnects stop people from burning out due to an overload of work and lack of personal time – and businesses can help facilitate this.
How Companies Can Incorporate Disconnect-Days to Combat Burnout
Despite a work-life blend becoming more common, being “always-on” is still a recipe for disaster. Employees, and remote workers especially, need ways to disconnect to avoid burning out completely. However, it is not entirely up to each individual to figure this out, and companies must help.
One such way they can do this is through scheduled “disconnect-days.” Essentially, there are specific days where employees are encouraged to completely disconnect – no emails, meetings, phone calls, or work. Of course, this can’t be forced, but it can be highly encouraged.
Some companies, such as Thrive Global, have taken a rigorous approach to this, as the founder and CEO Arianna Huffington explained to Harvard Business Review in 2017:
“[We] created Thrive Away, our vacation email tool. The way it works is simple: While you’re away on vacation, people who email you get a message, letting them know when you’ll be back. And then — the most important part — the tool deletes the email. If the email is important, the sender can always send it again. If it’s not, then it’s not waiting for you when you get back, or, even worse, tempting you to read it while you’re away.”
What’s more, the right to disconnect is also being pursued through legal channels. France, for example, introduced a law in 2016 that obliges companies with more than 50 employees to create a charter that sets out the hours when emails are not supposed to be sent or answered.
Ways to Disconnect from Remote Work
In addition to disconnect days, there are some other ways that remote employees may wish to disconnect in the short term. These can be useful to switch off from work when it is always at home:
Turn off notifications – when you hear the “ping” of an email, the temptation to check it at any time of the night or day can be overwhelming.
Create a space in which to work, and keep it separate from your leisure activities.
Spend time doing something else that you enjoy. Pursuing a hobby is a great way to feel like there is more to life than work.
Schedule emails to colleagues in other time zones to arrive during their working hours. It may not help you, but it will undoubtedly help them.
Traditional work-life balance is no longer applicable for the majority of the world’s knowledge workers. This is truer than ever when so many staff are working remotely, with technology keeping them connected. And, without being restricted by time or place, an employee’s productivity needs to be judged by other measures, namely output.
In this new world of work, we need to find ways to include still leisure and family time to avoid burnout, but this looks very different from how it once did. We need to shed the idea of a clear and balanced divide and instead explore new ways to blend work and life in a way that suits each employee.
The future of email is here,
are you ready for it?
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