How to Achieve Work-Life HarmonyBy
Work-life balance is unlikely in today’s global, high-tech business world, but work-life harmony is attainable.
The concept of finding “work-life balance” has a lot in common with the fruitless search for a unicorn or the Loch Ness Monster. Pursuit of this goal has become noticeably more challenging in the past 15 years as many more professionals truly are operating in a global marketplace, and we’ve adopted technology that makes it seemingly impossible to disconnect. The nearly constant connection to the corporate communication grid has, in many cases, led to Sunday evening becoming the new Monday morning. Even though these challenges are real, and they are occurring at a time of the year when many of us are engaged in one or more New Year’s resolutions that may fall short of becoming a lifestyle norm, I offer a few ideas to find a sustainable harmony, not balance, of work and life.
BE CLEAR AND REASONABLE IN DEFINING THE OBJECTIVE
How you define successful work-life harmony is key to determining whether you’ll reach the goal and whether reaching the goal will have the desired effect. Frequent measures of work-life balance are the number of hours worked per week and the number of weeks of vacation per year. But I don’t think they capture the intended goal. Everyone should define work-life harmony based on their own situation, but possibly there’s a general framework that provides a valuable place to start. To provoke thought, I offer one general objective to consider: to be physically and mentally present for the majority of personal life experiences that are important to you and your loved ones while also fulfilling your commitment as a team member and/or leader at your job. In considering how to measure progress toward your objective, I believe it is relevant to consider the following ideas:
Life is good!…but not perfect. I don’t believe it’s reasonable in most positions, especially leadership roles, to expect all 52 weeks of the year to go as planned (working 40 hours a week, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour lunch and vacation weeks that are perfectly uninterrupted). Life happens: A water pipe breaks, converting a room in your house to a well-decorated wading pool; a child discovers gravity from a tree limb; corporate issues new financial targets; an acquisition falls through; a new one emerges. But if you meet your goal in most of the 52 weeks, then you can still claim success. The journey of life in this case is more like trying to stay upright and moving forward during a marathon rather than walking a tightrope. Small missteps can be tolerated; they aren’t catastrophic.
Control matters more than absolute hours. If your goal includes some element of ensuring you are present at most key life events, then I strongly believe focusing on having control of when and where hours are worked is more valuable and relevant than simply keeping tally of the number of hours worked. In October 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported on a company in Michigan that announced it had adopted a “firm 40-hour” week. Under this policy, all employees were strongly encouraged to leave the building (and be finished working) by 6 p.m. While this may succeed for some companies and some positions, I would rather commit to working 45 hours a week but have control of when I work the 45 hours than working 40 hours with little to no flexibility. As leaders responsible for shaping the environment in which team members work, the concept of giving employees control and flexibility is important. It speaks more to a mind-set of achieving work-life harmony than work-life balance.
Invite your family members to be your partner, not your critic. While the definition of the work-life harmony objective is personal, don’t overlook the value of defining the goal with your loved ones. This process will help ensure alignment and better definition of what each person needs or desires. Most corporate roles are quite demanding, and enjoying the life journey benefits from true teamwork.
Ensure you have genuine passion for what you do. If you have concerns about not having sufficient work-life harmony, spend a minute to ensure you haven’t partially (and maybe justifiably) become corporate-crabby: tired, underchallenged, or overwhelmed. I’ve never heard retirees complain that they don’t have proper “hobby-life balance.” It’s also quite infrequent that I hear people who are truly passionate about what they do complain about their work-life harmony. A fairly well-known quote that I appreciate is, “If you enjoy what you do, you will never have to work a day in your life.” Also meaningful to consider is the mind-set held by many cultures in Southeast Asia that don’t focus on work vs. retirement but rather on defining one’s purpose throughout life. Ensure the real issue to be solved is work-life harmony vs. choice of work.
HOW LEADERS CAN SUPPORT WORK-LIFE HARMONY
It’s important for leaders to appreciate their responsibility in creating an environment and mind-set that support work-life harmony for the team. Most important, a supportive environment advances the general well-being of employees and, by natural extension, is likely to have a positive impact on their families. Plenty of studies conclude that if employees are more satisfied with their job and feel trusted and respected, the corporation will experience one or more benefits, such as improved employee job satisfaction, better employee retention, greater output due to more focus and commitment, and/or more success in recruiting.
Here are six actions I recommend that leaders consider to effectively create sufficient work-life harmony for their teams:
Focus on team member output, not activities. Focus almost exclusively on ensuring work is accomplished on time and with high quality (output focused). Don’t micro-manage the time when people arrive or leave for the day (process focused). It may seem subtle, but embedded in this approach is an extension of trust and empowerment to team members that allows them to fulfill both their work and personal commitments with the least disruption. In many cases it isn’t as much the number of hours worked that causes disruption as not having control of when the hours are worked. Giving team members as much of this control as possible is extremely valuable.
Predict fire drills. Encourage team members to identify the predictable busy periods well in advance so they can mitigate the oncoming chaos by starting work early.
Prioritize work. Be reasonable about what can be accomplished in a given period of time, and focus on the most important projects first. Setting reasonable goals provides leaders the right to hold the team accountable for delivering on its commitments.
Reduce drama. Don’t let small issues become a source of anxiety and stress. Very few things are worth that type of negative energy.
Assume best intentions. Start with the assumption that all team members are acting with the best intentions.
Encourage vacations. Create an environment where team members feel empowered to take vacation time earned, including two-week vacations, which are all too rare in the United States.