The rise of remote and hybrid work arrangements has largely erased the boundary between work and home and re-energized the debate over work/life balance. Multiple surveys have found that as employers require workers to return to physical workplaces, work/life balance is falling while stress is climbing.
As a result, some workplace experts suggest that the time has come to retire the concept of work/life balance (which was first introduced in 1910) and replace it with one better suited to this century.
Work/life integration (WLI) is a holistic approach that seeks to blend personal and professional needs. Rather than treating work and life as separate entities or creating a conflict between them, the goal of WLI is to find areas of compromise and synergy.
"When there's continuity between your personal and professional life, work can be part of a fulfilling life," said Tracy Brower, vice president of workplace insights at Steelcase in Holland, Mich., and author of Secrets to Happiness at Work (Simple Truths, 2021). "Work/life integration is the key to work/life fulfillment."
Top executives at consulting firm Deloitte U.S. are aware that their employees are their greatest asset and that their ability to meet business objectives depends on their well-being, said Melanie Langsett, principal of rewards, recognition and well-being for Deloitte in Atlanta. She sees the 24/7 "on-duty" mentality as an impediment to individual well-being, which, in turn, has a negative impact on the ability to meet organizational objectives and goals.
To prevent that from happening, Deloitte embedded WLI processes into the workflow itself. "It's a set of guiding principles that we design our day around," she said.
At Steelcase, a "capacity and demand" model helps employees achieve WLI and work/life fulfillment, Brower said. Organizations can build capacity by providing supportive and empathetic leadership, greater flexibility, opportunities for learning and growth, and a sense of community, she said.
Increasing individual capacity by learning "energy management" skills can also be a key component, said Jack Groppel, co-founder of Johnson and Johnson's Human Performance Institute (HPI) in Orlando, Fla., and a professor at Judson University in Elgin, Ill.
"When organizations make a commitment to helping their employees develop better energy management skills, they are cultivating a high-performance culture," he said.
Groppel said the HPI devised a "human energy pyramid" based on the scientific premise that achieving a level of sustained high performance requires an increase of energy capacity in four realms: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
- Physical energy is linked to physical health and is considered the foundation of energy management.
- Emotional energy is associated with emotions that inspire confidence and promote resilience.
- Mental energy is concerned with cognitive processes such as thinking, analyzing and decision-making.
- Spiritual energy is associated with purpose, values and mission.
Groppel recommended implementing small solutions, called microbursts, that generate large results. For example, a 10-minute walk isn't just good for physical health, but also can have a positive impact on mental clarity, focus and mood. Moving that walk outside to a park and inviting a co-worker to join can add a spiritual boost as well, he said.
"When people have more flexibility, they can give you more of their energy and focused, dedicated time," Brower said. However, the contours of flexibility can vary dramatically depending on the nature of the work, the culture of the organization and the demographics of the workforce.
When Jill Veglahn joined BAM Communications six years ago as the head of people, the California-based communications agency had "zero flexibility," she said. Since then, flexibility has become a core component of the agency's organizational strategy. The first step began before the pandemic, when the company implemented quarterly reset weeks for "deep work" that took place outside of the office.
When pulse surveys showed that the experiment was a success, the company shifted to monthly reset weeks and "flexible Fridays" to give employees more freedom. Earlier this year, the firm went one step further and began piloting a four-day workweek, Veglahn said.
Today, BAM employees can live anywhere they want if they show that they can be productive working from that location. For example, when an employee expressed a desire to move to London for a year, management challenged the employee to come up with a feasible plan. After reviewing the plan, the company agreed to let the employee work from England.
BAM takes a similar approach to professional development. When an employee asked to attend a conference in Amsterdam, the employee's boss challenged the employee to show how the conference would be beneficial.
"The employee was confident that they would be able to bring a new client on board if they went to the conference," Veglahn said. "The company agreed, and the employee delivered, which more than justified the $5,000 expense."
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements]
Establishing Meaningful Boundaries
When Arlo Gilbert founded Osano in 2018, the Texas entrepreneur intended for his data privacy platform to be a fully remote company.
"I saw it as an opportunity to recruit from an exceptional but often underutilized talent pool of working parents," Gilbert said.
To make that vision a reality, he created a "family-first culture" that allows working parents to blend family and career responsibilities more easily. Integrating children into the workday is part of that ethos. It's not unusual to see children, spouses and pets during Zoom meetings, which are designed for maximum efficiency.
"There has to be a clear agenda and goals so that people aren't sitting in unnecessary meetings all day," Gilbert said.
There is also an expectation that employees will get their work done during normal business hours. "We don't want people to work in the evenings or on weekends unless there's an urgent deadline," he added.
Working Together (and Apart)
Every organization has to decide how to design its WLI processes based on its business model, culture and demographics. "You can't just copy and paste someone else's solution," Langsett said.
About three years ago, Deloitte changed the WLI conversation from an individual to a team-based approach. Leaders are encouraged to create team norms that may include restorative time for focused work, digital breaks and collaborative disconnects.
"We've learned that we don't have to be together every day. Rather, we want to be intentional and purpose-focused about when and why we meet," Langsett said.
Before the pandemic, Langsett and her husband moved from Atlanta to the mountains of Tennessee, where she now manages her team remotely. However, she still periodically makes the two-hour drive to Atlanta to see her colleagues.
"I've been part of our Atlanta office community since 2000, so maintaining those long-established relationships and building new ones is important to me," she said.
Many HR professionals say they view the hybrid model—with its mix of home-based and onsite work—as the best of both worlds. To make the most of organizations' physical space, they often develop onsite programs and policies that facilitate relationships and build community.
"There's so much purpose in the relationships we have at work," Veglahn said.
Exploring Innovative Benefits
Aside from giving employees greater autonomy in when and where they work, some organizations are considering a range of innovative benefits to help recruit top talent, including implementing a four-day workweek. This perk could be especially attractive to members of the Baby Boomer generation, because 85 percent of Baby Boomers surveyed selected a four-day workweek as a top benefit that would attract them to a new job, compared to 62 percent of employees from other generations.
Just as important is delivering the rewards and recognition that employees think they deserve. Leaders and managers who invest in work design, rewards and recognition are more effective at boosting employee engagement, research shows. Workplace experts say this means letting go of outdated, office-centric workplaces and shifting to more human-centric work options, where work revolves around what's best for employees so that they can complete work to the highest standard and accommodate their personal lives.
Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.