By Lianne Sipsma, Global Managing Partner, Kaya Group
It’s interesting to note that prior to 2019 most work-life balance related articles and talks – and there were many – were focused on helping the audience achieve it. They were written with the intention of assisting their readers in learning how to balance their work and personal lives and they were filled with well-intentioned advice on how to make this a reality.
It all sounded very sensible, and my colleagues and I certainly scoured our fair share of such publications, conscientiously employing their tips in search of that highly desirable sense of balance. This would see work neatly placed on the one side and our personal lives on the other. We’d make sure that we had created well-structured daily schedules with allotted times for specific activities. We diligently pursued our purpose and passions and we tried hard to say no to unnecessary tasks.
Thankfully we were never asked to rate our performance on achieving work-life balance because we knew it wasn’t a slam dunk. We were still feeling torn and stretched between our two competing worlds. We were also left wondering why we had so easily aspired to this lofty ideal. Is work-life balance a pipe dream?
We decided to take the time to scrutinise the aspiration more closely and soon conceded that the prospect of balancing our work and our personal lives would require, in principle, that we take these two elements and apply balanced amounts of our time, energy, and effort to each of them. After all, balance implies an equal and fair distribution. Any inequalities such as too much work and not enough quality time at home would signal a problem. And on reflection, we agreed that that’s simply not practical. It’s not feasible to try and offset these two inextricably linked life activities. Are we all ‘work’ and no ‘personal’ at work? Many have certainly tried enforcing this approach. Similarly, is it all ‘personal’ at home, with not a thought of work allowed to creep in. Also tried. The outcome, as many can attest, is mostly feelings of guilt and despondency for failing to get it right.
A shift in understanding
Enter the COVID pandemic – a watershed moment for the earth’s current incumbents with only a handful of people who witnessed something similar at the start of the previous century when the 1918 Influenza pandemic ravaged the population. For the rest of us, the pandemic has been unprecedented and unnerving. The tried and tested ways of the world have fallen away, and especially so in the world of work, which has been rocked by a seismic shift in how it operates. This has left organisational leaders scrambling to make sense of the way forward. Strategic plans tossed aside as the fundamentals of their operating models are rewritten. Now we understand what the mantra really means when it suggests we build the plane in the sky.
And the ideal of work life balance? Well, that has been put on public trial.
At the start of the pandemic, employees hastily abandoned their desks and awkwardly found new ways to interact with colleagues and clients. Fringe technologies have made their way to centre stage as we carefully select our aspirational, on-brand background images and become accustomed to wearing our favourite shoes all day long. ‘You’re on mute,’ now a common refrain in meetings. The learning curve has been steep, but necessity has dictated this. Everyone is an early adopter in this model. Work and life have collided.
This has proven to be a major challenge to the conventional thinking that work and life are separate entities, to be managed independently, and to enjoy equal, structured input. Those new to working from home are finding themselves rewriting the manual. How to use the two hours that used to go to a daily commute. And how to make sure there is enough time spent with team members to ensure continued collaboration. Or when and where to take a renewal break – during a meeting on a walk around the block or not at all because ‘I’m at work, at home’? What had once been deemed unthinkable – working from home five days a week – is now the norm and those same marvellous technological advances, designed to increase performance and productivity wherever we are, have shown their dark side too. Being always on is not how we were designed.
Three years into the pandemic and organisations are now negotiating return-to-work propositions amid a purported great resignation where ‘great’ unfortunately refers to the scope and scale. Increasingly, employees are evaluating the extent to which employers will be good for their overall sense of worth, as an employee and as a person. It’s less about the parts than it is about the whole and forward-thinking companies recognise this. They are investing in building wellbeing cultures and implementing evidence-based, whole-of-organisation wellbeing programmes designed to increase well being capability.
We think it is much more reasonable that we should view our lives and all aspects thereof, whether that is our personal lives, work, or our wellbeing as fully integrated parts of our whole life. Is the objective not work-life integration – a well-thought-out, constructive, and collaborative merging of all our activities that support thriving? Using a renewal break at work to write a note for your child’s lunchbox. Checking emails in your old commute time. Using a walk around the block to reflect and plan.
And it turns out that when we are enjoying optimal wellbeing and thriving, it’s integrated. Quality relationships at home bolster our performance at work. Enjoying a noble purpose at work sparks positive emotions in our home time. We’re not suggesting interrupted, always-on-lives. Not at all. It needs to be sensible. We are confident that whole-life integration is.
Lianne Sipsma is a Global Managing Partner at the Kaya Group. Lianne’s 26 year career includes 20 years as an organisational psychologist. She has coached numerous leaders across the leadership pipeline in various industries.