The Problem With “Work-life Balance”

The phrase “work-life balance” has become a ubiquitous term in most lexicons and it yields about 2 million hits on Google. For many, and I used to be one of them, the phrase connotes fair work environments in which employees enjoy happy, stress-free lives with their friends and family outside of work; and career paths in which the realities of work don’t infringe on the enjoyment of life. But I’m beginning to think that the phrase, although well-intended, is not serving us as well as it could be. So although I am loathe to pick on it, pick on it I will.
My trouble with work-life balance surfaced a few weeks ago when I served as a panelist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s (RPI) Women of Diversity Entrepreneurship Symposium. Fellow panelists included Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of RPI; Sarah Xu, Chairman Shanghai Y&T Outdoor Manufacturing Co.; Kelly Carnes, CEO of TechVision21; and Aparna Mehrotra, of the United Nations. Several hundred people were in the audience, including an abundance of college-age women engineering students. The panel was set up as a conversation amongst panelists, with questions from the audience. Not too surprisingly, considering the average age of the audience, the question about “work-life balance” came up.
One panelist became quite agitated in her opinion that it was time for corporations to implement more policies aimed at producing “balance” in workers’ lives — with fixed work hours, better benefits, etc. Dr. Jackson, while acknowledging some policy changes were in order, turned the conversation to those times in all of our lives when we are doing something so significant at work that we must sacrifice time with our family and friends in service to the greater good. “Sometimes, you must carry others”, she said. And that’s when it dawned on me: the word “balance” is a problem.
On any given day, when I wake up, I can feel totally “un-balanced.” I know what you’re thinking: I got a hearty chuckle from the audience when I said that at RPI. But it’s true: most days, I am heads-down for many hours working on NCWIT. Other days, I swing more hours over to family or friends; my niece just got married in Boulder and I had to clean the house and run errands in anticipation of the family’s arrival. Sometimes, my family even gets involved with the NCWIT things I’m working on — my husband helped staff our Washington, D.C. event in May. Sometimes, I grab some hours in the middle of the day to go exercise. Often, I work well in to the evening and on weekends.
Lest you think that I can do this because I work for a university, I did the same thing when I was a corporate VP. There were staff meetings on the phone while sitting at a son’s soccer game, business trips that ran into the weekend if need be, nightly international phone meetings, and early departures from the office to drive children’s carpools or volunteer at school. I know I’m not an anomaly in this; I know many successful leaders and executives who have done exactly the same thing.
So the word “balance” doesn’t do it for me. It connotes equal time spent at home and work, lives always “in balance.” It sends a message that if I am spending more time at work, my home life must be suffering. And vice-versa, that I am being “unfair” to work or to life when I spend more time at the other. It sets up a “winner-loser” discussion between employees and employers. So I offered up two words to the RPI audience that I think can give everyone a clearer sense of satisfaction and goal accomplishment: “integration” and “flexibility.”
Work is a part of life, just like friends, family, and hobbies. It can and should be rewarding — something that informs you, challenges you, inspires you. Sharing what you do with your family and friends in truly integrative ways helps employees both spend more time with loved ones AND get the job done. I’m not talking about bringing your child to a business meeting, but I am suggesting that businesses make it easy for employees to bring significant others in after-hours and on weekends if the needs of the business require overtime. My sons created truly inspired art work during these times. My husband has a picture on his whiteboard at work that he hasn’t erased (after 10 years!)
But it should also be true, with appropriate planning, that employees can easily take time off during the day to attend a child’s game or help out in a classroom. And, if their day is full of phone meetings, it should be okay to take them from a home office every now and again, allowing them a few minutes between meetings to throw in that load of wash or do the dishes. It sounds trivial but it makes a big difference. Looking back on my own career, it’s amazing how often a great business idea came to me on my “home office” days, or when I was in charge of “play group” for the afternoon. Truly, life informs work.
I would argue for culture change that allows employees to truly integrate those parts of their lives that they deem appropriate, in a way that is business-useful and professional. This is less a question of “balance” than it is of flexibility, integration, and trust between employees and their employers. It may not lend itself to well-articulated corporate policy since each employee has a different situation, but I believe it pays huge dividends at the end of the day.

Lucy Sanders is CEO and Co-founder of NCWIT.

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