When organizations announced their work-from-home orders in March, many employees met the change with excitement and the hope that, without a commute or school drop-offs to contend with, attaining the elusive “work-life balance” would be easier.
But as months passed amid an unsteady economic climate, there seemed to be an almost counterintuitive impact on those fortunate enough to retain their jobs and work from the safety of their homes.
Work became omnipresent as physical separation between work and life was lost. Kitchen tables and bedrooms became offices; kids became coworkers; Zoom became the hangout of choice for work, family, and friends.
These unusual circumstances highlighted the fallacy of seeking some impossible equilibrium of “work-life balance.” In the age of email-enabled smart phones, work and life are rarely truly separate domains, even under “normal” circumstances. Yet, terms like “work-life integration”, indicating no boundaries between the two, isn’t ideal either.
Work-Life Negotiation Leads to Life-Work Synergy
Instead, organizations should support “work-life negotiation”, where employees have the freedom to intentionally and flexibly negotiate the various roles they play in their lives. This “negotiation” is, by design, highly personalized and based on current circumstances and life experiences. For example, in order to complete a high-priority work project, an employee may work extra hours for several weeks; then, once their deadline is met and workload decreases, take several days of PTO to recuperate.
Work-life negotiation requires a high level of trust: managers must trust their people to manage their time efficiently, and employees must trust their employers to reward production and organizational impact more than butt-in-seat (or green-light-on-Slack) “facetime.”
When successful, the result is life-work synergy, which completely reimagines the relationship between employers and their employees. Like Maslow’s hierarchy, there are different levels of life-work synergy organizations can reference — a life-work synergy trifecta — to evaluate their current efforts and how they’re enabling their peoples’ whole selves.
Life-Work Synergy Trifecta
Supporting the people experience — with a mix of value currencies such as self-actualization, positive experiences, and traditional workplace currencies like compensation and benefits, flexible integration, and growth — is a necessary foundational step. For many organizations and their people, this year’s unforeseen challenges may have reverted the status quo back to survival mode, where creating a supportive yet transactional employee-employer relationship is the best-case scenario. But best companies, and those who strive to engage and retain their people long-term, must go beyond the people experience.
The next step in the life-work synergy trifecta is humanizing work, where we welcome and celebrate people as they are. As another somewhat counterintuitive development of remote work en masse, many employees, out of both desire and circumstance, began sharing more of their personal lives with their managers and colleagues. Teams received intimate access into each other’s homes and families; people authentically shared their circumstances, their challenges, their fears. And it’s become clear that employees expect this kind of humanity, active listening, support, and connection from their leaders and organizations — in fact, employees who believe their managers actually care about their personal lives are nearly three times more engaged than employees who don’t.
The third and final level of the trifecta is human flourishing, where employers take a vested interest in supporting their employees in all areas of their lives and helping them to flexibly negotiate these needs. Blanket, one-size-fits-all policies are difficult to enforce in the new world of work; each employee faces unique circumstances and needs, such as the 72% of workers with children under the age of 18 who are anxious about balancing the demands of both their jobs and families. Progressive organizations are also beginning to realize that the skills and talents developed through extracurricular passions become transferrable skills that contribute to workplace success. I’m forever grateful for the time my then-manager spent with me several years ago, probing into my outside passions and asking what I did for fun as a child. When writing and public speaking came up again and again, she found a way to bring more of those activities into my role, redefining my career trajectory and setting me up for the path I’m on today.
Flexibility is the Name of the Game
One thing all organizations can likely agree on is that, when possible, remote work is here to stay. About 80% of CEOs say they expect a more widespread remote workforce as a result of the pandemic, and 78% of them think this will be a permanent change. Even pre-pandemic, the vast majority of workers (80%) said they would choose to work a job with a flexible work option over one without. In this massive work-from-home experiment, some employees have surely learned they prefer working in-office, but expectations for flexibility have irrevocably changed the employer landscape.
The bottom line: to attract and retain top talent in today’s world, organizations must provide flexible and personalized workplaces, offer innovative and positive people experiences, invite their employees’ whole selves to work, and actively empower their people to succeed in all aspects of their lives. Successful life-work synergy completely reimagines the transactional employer-employee status and sets the stage for a mutually-beneficial relationship based on trust, purpose, and longevity.