Time to read: 12 mins.
Work and Life: worlds apart or a continuum?
The term Work-Life Balance was unsurprisingly introduced in the industrial environment in 1965 in the context of women (re)entering the workplace after becoming mothers, but the subject had already before made his appearance in the realm of counterculture with the journalist and author Paul Krassner famously postulating that “One of the aspects of happiness is when you can make as little distinction as possible between your work and your play”: an echo to a condition of happiness seen as Gratification, the “deep satisfaction gained from becoming totally absorbed in a complex activity or by working toward meaningful goals, increased by the development of new virtues and strengths” (our more familiar skills and competences, growing and contributing).
In a commentary to the Invention of Leisure in Early Modern Europe, by Peter Burke, Joan-Lluis Marfany writes:
“As the feudal warrior made way for the courtier, as power required involvement in governing an increasingly complex state, certain aspects of the lifestyle of the upper class began to feel more and more like work or, at any rate, less and less like pleasure. This at once sharply defined those other activities as non-work or leisure, and morally legitimized them as much needed compensation for, and relief from, the exacting gravity of the former”.
These initial reflections are important in casting the topic in what is still its main characterization: on one hand an interpretation that looks at Work-Life Balance in the light of a dichotomy between what happens at work and what can be considered pleasant (work vs leisure) and consequently advises a complete separation between professional and personal to achieve a good harmony; on the other, the idea that wellbeing (therefore Work-Life Balance) can only be fulfilled if work becomes personal and a signature of the continuum of our identity.
A lose-lose game
With the economic boom in the 1960s the exacerbation of a competitive market forced employers to reflect on staff retention, avoiding the heavy costs of turnover: this resulted not only in a skyrocketing payroll increase of 32% in just a decade, but also in more and more investments in “work-life balance” values and practices, and branding, that would attract and retain employees’ loyalty.
Today’s Great Resignation (marked also by the turbulent changes in the perception of life balance that the COVID pandemic has brought along) sees again organizations bringing the buzz of Work-Life Balance to the forefront (and not always with the same social competence that their 60s and 80s predecessors afforded). But the chemical ingredients of the usual work benefits package do not seem to lead to the perfect alchemy this time: while managers look at the choice of conceding a plethora of Work-Life Balance benefits (flexible hours, remote work, paid sabbaticals) either with a fear of employees’ entitlement or one of resentment, employees still feel that, no matter how much is offered, they are still losing on something, sacrificing, so to say, an undefined but consistent and sore, chunk of their wellbeing.
In a recent HBR’s survey of middle and senior managers, up to 50% of respondents declared to be consciously making an effort to resist long hours while perceiving their work as “demanding, exhausting, chaotic”. No doubts one would want to spend as little time as possible doing something like that. The tradeoffs of Work-Life Balance risk of becoming a “lose-lose” game, while turnover (and long term sick leaves caused by burn-outs) keeps on being the single most expensive threat befalling today’s enterprises in the “first” world.
While managers look at the choice of conceding a plethora of Work Life Balance benefits (flexible hours, remote work, paid sabbaticals) either with a fear of employees’ entitlement or a fear of resentment, employees feel that they are still losing on something, sacrificing, so to say, an undefined, but consistent and sore, chunk of their wellbeing.
Judith’s job allowed her to work from home 3 days a week, to grant the flexibility to care for her preschool kids, while still thriving in her career as a senior manager. One day she called me from the playground: she confessed having spent the weekend worrying about a certain deadline and rechecking some files, while caring at the same time for one of her children, who had been feeling poorly all along. Finally, after the weekend worrisome segregation, they had made it to the park, where she could hold our call while kiddo was playing. Suddenly he started crying loud, for a minor fall. Judith asked me to hang up, she would call me back once sorted. When she did, she was in tears herself: her toddler had not allowed her to touch or help him, but instead yelled stubbornly “go away”. She felt alienated. Work-Life Balance had become the poisonous recipe of de-personification: the tradeoffs of flexibility were a continuous sense of urge to deserve the generous space granted while keeping up with the competitive pace of progression as a manager, and ultimately the inability of being really present in her own intimate life.
Work-Life Balance as an employee's skill?
In a study conducted for HBR in 2021 I. Lupu and M. Ruiz Castro advise employees to engage in a cyclical process involving “reflexivity” and “role definition”.
The process can be summarized in 5 steps:
Thomas for example has been employed by 2 failing start ups in the last 5 years. He shared frustratingly how he had to completely redesign his role, his working hours, even his location a couple of times per year: the amount of times the companies he was working for redefined their USP, objectives, metrics, business strategy and org chart.
Just as placing the entire responsibility on the employee’s plate cannot provide a realistic approach, its opposite has also revealed some limitations. Let’s see how.
We speak of Leadership every day, yet we do not seem to appreciate the kind of life and behaviors it takes to mature the qualities involved in the term.
Can't buy me love: projecting non existing values.
Today we are witnessing a race of employers offering working conditions that abound in flexibility, in the attempt to conquer employees ready to resign or choose a better bidder. But once again one ring does not really catch them all, and CEOs, COOs and HR managers alike are left like the cat carrying to their owner’s doorstep the fattest mouse, only to receive back a disgusted look.
The workplace/hours/platform flexibility blurs boundaries: a WhatsApp message, an Asana notification, pop up during our Sunday breakfast, telling us that others are still there and productive, work does not stop when we eat croissants, and a few minutes a few times a day build up becoming the screenplay of our inner and outer lives. Child care hours are frowned upon and alienate those who don’t have kids yet would love time to care for just as important people, like their spouses, elderly parents, or friends in need. Working from home takes to an uneasy place about 1/2 of an organization: those who thrive in physical closeness and love short, spontaneous, feedback loops, and those who truly fear that the old saying “far from the eyes far from the heart” will apply also to their career progression.
Soon the excitement of these changes wears off, and dissatisfaction, “la maladie” of somehow being engaged in a process that is wasting lives away, surges again.
What creeps from this rattling feeling of "lacking purpose" is, more often than acknowledged, an inconsistency between the declared and the actual organizational culture.
Nicholas, who was enthusiastic about joining a small company with a fair trade product at its core, during the small talk of a management meeting, heard the CEO sharing his reverence for the working mindset and achievements of a world renown billionaire, who had made a fortune without much havoc surrounding his company’s practices of labor exploitation, and his heavy lobbying, which had obstructed the passing of progressive bills advancing the possibility of non-monopolistic entities to rise on the market.
Paula, a seasoned professional who loved and lived for the mission of the not for profit organization she worked for, contacted me to talk about her “strange” feeling of a sudden lack of purpose upon hearing of the promotion recently given to a peer of hers, notorious for his urge to publicize his 60 hours work week as much as for his parallel ability to overshadow the merits and credits of his more humble (and just as overworked) direct reports.
Very often, under the veneer of an enlightened set of Work-Life Balance policies, we find that organizations (and our century’s work culture at large) are still quite rooted in the idolatry and praise of the “corporate warrior”. Our change as society is at times more superficial than we would wish for or rooted in even more conservative (because unseen) postulates.
Leadership without imagination. The meaning of "life" in the balance equation.
When Boards, executives and managers, imagine the “Life” component of this Uber Employee, it generally entails more must-dos and to-dos, such as family, sports, and at best some form of pious community service.
In this imagery the “other side of life” tends to be itself all duty-based, constrictive and conservatory in nature, or constructive but only towards the ideal of “performance” (like the triathlon running C-level we probably have all met by now, or the HR Manager hitting an impressive charity fundraising goal). Without taking away any of the virtues and beauty of these endeavors, we can see that they're limited, and how creativity, capacity for pleasure, individual expression, and a critical mindset are not the primary attributes represented in these raw models. Yet, these qualities are the birthing grounds of innovation, problem solving, open mindedness, capacity for complexity and diversity, and emotional intelligence. Familiar? It’s the skillset for Leadership we can find in any basic manual. We are talking about core transferable skills. If excelling in the practice of these qualities was truly valued and searched for, we would see headlines about amazing employees who recently won an RPG competition, or organized an impactful protest to increase the green areas in a neglected neighborhood, or completed in their free time a Bachelor of music.
These eclectic personalities work in Procurement, Law, Finance, Sales, Marketing, NGOs, and Public Offices, just as much as “marathon runners”, “fathers of 4” and “charity dinner organizers".
Adriano Olivetti, whose campus-city, Ivrea, is today a Unesco listed site, in the 50s turned his family owned homonymous company into a phenomen that influenced business practice, politics, and culture, globally, while creating iconic products at the absolute avant-garde of technology and design, defining what we expect from the industry still to date.
This is how he spoke:
"Our Company believes in spiritual values, in the values of science, believes in the values of art, believes in the values of culture, believes that the ideals of justice cannot be estranged from the still uneliminated disputes between capital and labor. It believes above all in Man, in his divine flame, in his possibility of elevation and redemption. The advancement of a people can be seen in the number, the importance and the suitability of its social structures, in the extent to which it exalts and protects everything necessary for culture and, in a word, for the spiritual and physical upbringing of its children. This social system, however, is still the privilege of the few".
This type of leadership delivered the very first Personal Computer, imagined and realized a world of architectural design at the service of workers that compelled the campus vision of giants like Google and Microsoft, and even got its products into the Museum of Modern Art of New York.
We may be facing a failure in contemporaneity to imagine and expect Leaders with broader professional identities, more Vitruvian in essence, that can represent more widely the spectrum and value of human life and thought, and how this can contribute to society.
We may find that although we speak of Leadership every day, we do not seem to appreciate the kind of life and behaviors it takes to mature the qualities involved in the term. The way our employees spend their free time, their capacity for creativity and for inspiring others, and a level of unconventionality, are of the utmost importance if we want to create organizations that stand out, are truly innovative and competitive.
This is also true for the not for profit environment, where it's definitely not the money that can buy you love.
The hidden ideologies of work environments can make the richness of this human capital invisible and strip organizations of their lifeblood. Very cynically speaking, this crisis of intellect is also often mirrored in loss of profits (yet, in a world that only consumes and pays more). Today we are all witnessing the inability to circumvent the obstacles of the current economical and political status quo: we do not seem to have the leadership capable to come up with innovative, and pulling, visions.
An employee's work-life balance victory is not just a matter for HR
An employee unsatisfied with their Work-Life Balance is the canary in the coal mine of an organization’s inefficiencies. While the stories of Paula and Nicolas tell us about lack of inspiring leadership, Eddie’s is even more specific: when discussing his development plan with his supervisor, he had been very through around his interest in slowly advancing towards a Master Data position: he had already started training junior employees to step into his analyst duties, completed in his free time a few tough certifications and started developing the design for a data strategy that could improve service availability for the company’s global customers. A few months into the process, his supervisor, who had approved Eddy’s development plan, suddenly asked him to take on a massive data analysis effort, low competence / high intensity, that would not only slow down his intended development progression but also kill some specific momentum gained right at that moment in the stakeholders’ interest. In spite of affirming verbally the opposite, the supervisor simply did not truly believe or even understand Eddy’s development plan and the impact it could have on the organization. One year later, and with a change of supervisor, Eddie could complete his plan, delivering one of the major company’s USP to date.
Gratification is only found when one's overall and broad identity can grow, change, and be put in good use to contribute to a greater dimension than the individual. If a person's job takes 30 to 40 hours of their week, believing in the separation of work and personal to be conducive of harmony is infantile. Sooner or later, if there is inconsistency between these 2 realms, this will emerge as lack of satisfaction, and a sense of emptiness, that can be tamed for a while by fear based levers (financial returns, ease of work conditions, professional insecurity) but eventually, especially when people are valuable professionals, will result in the search for renewed motivation elsewhere. An organisation cannot survive on make believe nor on transactional relations when it comes to make their employees happy, and it cannot sustain on the long term motivating everyone with a panacea of stellar work conditions. It is paramount that sustainable work-life balance is a win-win for employers and employees. If you an employer, a Board member, an Executive, or a manager, it is advised that you look very carefully at the 4 recommendations below and if they don't check, take action today.
If you're an employee, and you have been feeling more and more the type of "loss" described above, read through to see how your relation to your current employer is doing in respect to the 4 priorities below. Do you feel that the business priorities and objectives of your employer provide a direction within which you can thrive? Do you feel deeply motivated to act by the values of the organisation you work for? Are they a match to yours? Are they lived through by your management with the same emphasys they have on paper or only used to make believe? Do you feel that your creativity, your broader skills, your competencies, are recognised and put to good use? Do you trust your manager to listen to your needs and take seriously your happiness? Are you inspired by the leadership of the company your work for? If the 4 indications below are not fulfilled, start today a conversation to demand clarity of approach. If this won't be taken seriously, check within yourself if what is holding you to a lower threshold of your potential is a fear you can work on overcoming.
1. Have clear company objectives
Make clear what are the company objectives: when these are explicit, public, and are repeated every day with absolute certainty at organizational and team level, they really create safe boundaries for everyone. Business priorities need to be consistent and specific, medium and long term, because they provide a contour for the definition of personal ones by employees. It is much easier, then, for them to establish their own trajectory, to define and put value on what their true contribution can be, and compare and negotiate the tradeoffs of their involvement.
2. Work seriously on defining the authentic company values
Work in depth to bring to surface your true Organizational Values. Don’t be afraid if you really can’t be a “diversity”, “compassion” or “results” champion. It is ok to find out that “safety” or “heritage” are more important to your company and your people. Just make sure that what you represent is authentically what your company leadership stands for or you will run on an ideology rather than ideas, and lose credibility. If all your senior managers are passionate about a Netflix evening with kids and popcorn, and have never questioned once their dietary choices, mental health or social priviledge, do not bring front and center “self-awareness”: you cannot have universal consent or try to attract everyone. It would be counterproductive, as you would waste your time with commercial leads that do not convert, and with employees who will start in awe and end in cringe. Bacardi Limited is the world's largest privately held business. One of their values is "behave like a family": they don't need to change this for as many people who don't like them, there are enough who recognise, trust and are loyal to their brand, because the brand is loyal to itself. Your true values can attract like minded people, with the same heart, the same will and interests, rather than disappointing the expectations of those you attracted with a bait. Remember that values change when Shareholders, Board members and Executives change. Do not forget to run again some Values sessions to see what’s there and what type of team is needed now. And viceversa, if your values are there to last and represent your soul, do not hire executives that live them weakly. Keep on speaking and behaving with authenticity if you want your employees and clients to be motivated to stay.
3. Know your employees personally and harvest their knowledge
Value and motivate the personal lives of your people as much as you do with their professional ones. On one hand, more collectively, stimulate settings, like employee resources groups or councils, where employees can give shape to a common vision, interests and needs, thus forming the right push towards the leadership to improve and align scope and strategies. Individual lives are the receptacles of transferable skills, talents and knowledge to be tapped in. On the other, remember that you cannot know your people only superficially and can’t rely on relations which aren’t profoundly based on trust. A good way to proof this is checking if your direct reports invite you to personal situations. Even the most introvert personality will do so if they trust you. Knowing the person allows you not to project needs and values based on trends and ideology but to actually satisfy true interests, help real needs and real worries, and walk together in the definition of a sense of purpose that can be shared.
4. Understand it’s a win-win and treat it with exactly that value
Understand the Win-Win of establishing personalized and more capillary Work-Life Balance pathways within your organization. Remember, true Work Life Balance, if implemented using these considerations, means having individuals who are actually finding pleasure in what they do at work, because it is a continuation of their own self, mirrors their values, gives direction and boundaries to their personal objectives and allows them to develop and contribute. This is a source of motivation and a drop in turnover that you would never be able to unlock with a salary raise, a paid sabbatical or an all branded recruitment campaign.
5. In the end it’s still about leadership.
Achieving all this (clear and well cascaded objectives, authentic company values, personal and trusted employee supervisor relations, personal work life balance plans) in any size organization means giving massive importance to the managers and supervisors you have.
Still we are reminded that holding an eye on the employee as a person, being truly interested in their happiness, not just in their utilization, is maybe the single, most important definition of true leadership. You will need managers who are truly empathic, and not performative but personal in the way they approach others. This type of attitude in interpersonal communication is not common currency in our work culture: people who can do it become role models.
Investing in the right type of business coaching, mentorship programs, and having your personnel’s evaluations capturing the right data, can help your managers hone, in time, these skills.
Remember that the history of humanity is one of impossible tasks, difficult circumstances, massive “this can’t be done now” which were every single time overturned by someone who was already doing it.
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M.G. Testa is an Executive, Mentor and Advisor. She lives in Amsterdam, leading organisations and people in transition since 1998. You can reach her here.