Dispelling the Myth of Work-Life Balance

Unicorns, Atlantis and work-life balance: What do these three things have in common?

They’re three of the most ridiculous myths I’ve ever heard of.

Right now you might be thinking, “This woman is off her rocker. She founded a professional staffing firm based on work flex. Why is she saying it's a myth?” Allow me to explain.

There’s a huge difference between work-life balance and work-life flexibility. It’s like the difference between a unicorn and a horse. Or between Atlantis and Machu Picchu.

Here’s why:

  • For starters, the term “balance” implies a 50-50 split (and we all know that’s a myth). For most of us, the time scale definitely tips in favor of work. In fact, this Gallup poll indicates that the average workweek has expanded to 47 hours (and that many professionals work 10 or more hours per week beyond this average).
  • It also assumes that employees’ work and life are distinct elements. Technology has transformed the traditional 9-to-5 into a 24/7 workday. Work life is bleeding into home life, blurring boundaries and making it harder for people to truly disconnect: A survey from the American Psychological Association found that more than half of people check work messages before and after work, over the weekend and while home sick. Nearly half (44 percent) stay connected while on vacation.
  • Finally, the term “balance” gives equal importance to the work and nonwork components of people’s lives. For most of your team, however, nonwork elements can be much more important than job responsibilities. (If your spouse was suddenly hospitalized and you had a big presentation to give, which would be more important to attend to?)

So, is your employees’ pursuit of a reasonable work schedule, as well as time for a real personal life and sleep (don’t forget about sleep), a waste of time? Absolutely not.

You just need to change your approach. Instead of encouraging your team to achieve “balance,” help them achieve greater work-life flexibility and satisfaction. Here’s how to do it:

Focus on results and productivity — not hours logged.

Hours worked does not necessarily correspond to efficiency. In fact, research from Stanford University shows that productivity diminishes significantly for workweeks that are more than 48 hours, and that employees who work beyond that are more likely to make dangerous and costly mistakes.

Furthermore, true professionals hate being micromanaged. So don’t do it. Create a sound framework for flexibility by giving your employees well-defined goals and a clear plan for achieving them. Then, evaluate individuals’ effectiveness based on the results they produce — not how many hours they put in or where they complete work.

Address cultural issues.

Companies that build a culture of flexibility attract better talent, experience less turnover and enjoy greater productivity, creativity and innovation. But building the right culture isn’t easy. To make sure you’re really “walking the walk”:

  • Obtain buy-in at all levels. Make sure everyone from the receptionist to the CEO understands the benefits flex work offers, as well as the operational and managerial changes required to take work-life flexibility from concept to execution.
  • Keep your options open. Consider which flexibility initiatives are the most practical for your organization and will lead to the greatest gains in satisfaction.
  • Start small. Any culture change takes consistent sustained effort. Focus on implementing one flexibility initiative at a time.

Manage differently.

Help employees define what work-life flexibility really means to them. Ideas vary from person to person, role to role and among genders. Once employees clarify their priorities, find ways to shape work so that it increases satisfaction both inside and outside your organization:

  • Experiment with shorter workweeks. Compressing the week (working four 10-hour days, for instance) or reducing the total number hours worked can deliver tremendous gains in satisfaction.
  • Offer telecommuting options. Provide the technology, resources and training professionals need to be productive at home or work.
  • Tame technology and expectations. According to WorkplaceTrends’ 2015 Workplace Flexibility Study, 65 percent of employees say their managers expect them to be on call even when they’re “off the clock.” Set limits on when, where and how employees are to be accessible.
  • Try “homing at work.” Giving employees the flexibility to take care of personal needs while at the office is one of the best ways to improve work-life satisfaction. Allow them to check off a few personal tasks (little things like setting appointments, running personal errands after lunch, or just buying something online) during the workday. When they’re able to check off these tasks, they experience less mental clutter and anxiety — and are actually able to focus better on work.