Choose Life! An opinion on work / life integration

Is it time that we start to encourage employees to bring their personal lives to work? and is it reasonable to think that we realistically have any choice about it?

Over the last couple of years there has been a trend towards talking about “work/life integration”, rather than “work/life balance”. There is a massive archive of commentary on this trend, which I won’t even attempt to recite now, but there is plenty of data and information out there if you are interested.

Sitting behind this trend is an acknowledgement of the falsehood which came from the concept of work/life balance – i.e. that work and personal life can be separated.

As technology has advanced and methods of flexible working have expanded and become more available, individuals have been expected, more and more, to have some kind of hard-wired broadband connection to their work. Employees are now “always on”.

Many commentators suggest that there is no work/life paradigm; there is just “life”. Equally, you could just as easily say that there is just “work”; and that is certainly the experience of many individuals.

Without stopping to think too hard about whether it is healthy, modern business has given flexibility to its people only as it has demanded proportionately more flexibility back. The ability to integrate work into pretty much every aspect of life is often the thing that enables an individual to progress through an organisation, or simply keep their job, in circumstances where they might not have been able to before. Constant availability and responsiveness is prized and rewarded.

This is something that the Millennials apparently desire. While work/life integration creates a challenge to many generation X employees – those who have been holding on desperately to the idea that it is somehow possible to achieve a strict separation between work and personal life (myself included) – for the Millennials, this is solved by accepting and allowing them to be constantly plugged into their personal life (through social media etc.), and in constant connection and dialogue with their social circles whilst being “at work”.

The Millennials are probably far better suited to this than generation X. As digital natives, the millennials are better than Generation X at being honest with themselves and their peers. They have to be, because they have grown up in a world where there is nowhere to hide. This enables them to be comfortable with a higher level of work/life integration, and actually makes it illogical for there to be work/life separation.

For generation X and the baby boomers before, things are more difficult. They either define themselves entirely by their work (there was after all a time when you could have a “job for life”); or they attempt to live in a split existence where their personal life is kept apart from their work life, perhaps eschewing or denying the presence of social media entirely, lest someone at work might find out what they really did at the weekend.

The risk (and perhaps the reality) is that many in generation X approach professional life as a performance; a projection of their self who they think they should be at work; while their true self is reserved for their closest friends and family. This, of course, is resistance to work/life integration, and therefore resistance to change.

But there is a dichotomy. Most of our businesses are still run by generation X, and the corporate social norms still reflect that. Many businesses want to fully leverage technological advances, but they want employees to keep their personal lives at home. This is unsustainable.

Change is a reality, and the world of work has changed beyond recognition in the last 25 years. It will continue to change at pace, and we can expect our current understanding of the “workplace” to shift significantly over the next few years.

So the challenge becomes to make work feel more like life. Business leaders must allow employees to bring their personal issues to work, and employees need to start being more open and honest with themselves, their colleagues, and leaders in the workplace. Both of these things need to happen together.

Just as work has infringed upon personal life, it is now time to accept that inevitable conclusion that personal life must permeate through work.

Some of the most obvious steps that can be taken are in respect of how you measure performance and the flexibility you afford to employees in doing so. For instance, a modern employee or executive may view it as important that performance is not based upon actual hours of attendance in a particular place, but rather by outcomes achieved against specified objectives.

Every employee is unique and will need different work arrangements to suit the requirements of their personal life. Therefore there needs to be flexibility around flexibility, because a rigid framework around flexibility won’t hit the mark. Flexibility is generally considered to improve overall productivity, talent retention and employee engagement, so this is a good thing, right?

But those things still don’t really invite the personal life into work. They just allow work to fit around life (and fill every conceivable gap while doing so).

This is where things like “corporate social responsibility” and “shared common values” start to come in to play, but it is more than that.

Businesses need to start thinking about how they support employees in their personal life. Perhaps they are buying their first home or car; maybe they want to climb Mt Everest; there might have been a tragedy in their life, or perhaps they had a serious accident away from work. Maybe their marriage is breaking down, or they have a disabled child, spouse, sibling, parent they need to care for.

Businesses have a role to play in supporting their people deal with issues in their personal lives, be that through counselling, coaching, mentoring or some kind of benefits provision (providing quick and easy access to people who can help). Embracing true diversity is essential in this context.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a moral position. It is a logical business conclusion.

Without addressing this issue there will be an increased proportion of employees suffering from excess stress and burnout. They will become ill, but not before they have become unproductive. It is probably already happening in your business. Ask yourself, are you happy with the level of productivity in your business? (irrespective of how you measure it). How can productivity be low, if your people are working for proportionately more of their time? (Which, statistically, they are)

There is a cost to that absence and that lack of productivity, not to mention the loss of opportunity.

Ultimately it is the control of that cost which should be the initial primary business driver for change. With that change comes the opportunity to become an employer of choice and win your own battles in the war for talent.

So, choose life. It’s a win win all round!

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