29 June 2022

Work Life Harmony

Since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, concepts like the "new normal" have become hot topics as professionals figure out what work routines, practices, settings, relationships, etc. look like going forward. After experiencing my own setbacks over the last two years, I recently realized that the "new normal" prompted me to reckon with my own breaking point. I was asked recently what does work life balance mean to me. After several years of increased workload and tighter deadlines, and as politics influences more of our daily lives, I started to grapple with this important question.

First off, I dislike the phrase "work life balance." Balance seems somewhat oppositional, like there is never a winner. When we view work and life in opposition, we overlook opportunities where we might benefit more from coordination or harmonization between the two. Jeff Bezos posed a question that I found inspiring, "Is work depriving you of energy or generating energy for you?"

It's important for professionals to identify the elements of work that energize us, such as working on a team, feeling like our efforts are adding value, elevating one’s craft or countless other opportunities. We must find what motivates and invigorates us in our occupations and then pursue the daily opportunities that support us in bringing our best selves to every project or assignment we lead or participate in.

Work Life Harmony Tips for Managers
Managers have just as much responsibility to encourage and develop a healthy balance for subordinates as team members do in creating individual balance for themselves. Engaging in this responsibility as a manager reflects the leader’s respect and care for team members, and it also increases productivity in the long run. Here are a few work life balance tips for managers:

  • Ask team members what they need to find work life harmony
  • Give team members resources to do their job
  • Lead by example

Ask Team Members What They Need to Find Work Life Balance
A significant body of research shows that positive emotions correlate to increased creativity. Additional research shows that innovation is directly related to how engaged people feel, i.e. the level of positive emotions they experience specifically about work. It is true that some people will be happier in an office setting for various reasons, such as adverse conditions they may face at home or simply because they thrive in a busy atmosphere with plenty of people to interface with.

However, others tend to prosper working from home or other remote stations. Determinations over what is the right amount of working from home have left many scratching their heads, and there does not appear to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Just because it feels natural to bring team members back to the office after peak pandemic conditions does not necessarily mean it is better than remote, flexible or hybrid work.

Often, this is a type of expedience bias. This type of bias causes us to go with what is fastest or what feels right rather than taking the time to clarify and consider all available data on the subject before creating lasting plans. Such additional data could potentially contradict our perception or assumption (in this case, that work is more efficient from an office), and evaluating broader data could move us closer to a more objective truth that may be more advantageous to base policy on. Even NASA is spending time experimenting with what works best says Frank Gonzalez, deputy director for the office of diversity and equal opportunity. Not all experiments are successful. Gonzalez advises, “if you try an approach and discover team members hate it, do not be afraid to acknowledge your mistakes and try again.”

Team members may already be aware of a specific solution that would improve their work life harmony, but they probably will not share unless asked. It is important to create a culture that makes team members feel comfortable bringing concerns to the attention of management all the time, not just when the next annual review or team member engagement survey comes due.

Give Team Members Resources to do Their Jobs
Company culture is defined by shared everyday habits. James Clear of Atomic Habits proposes that "the ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible." The average office worker focuses on one task for only three minutes. A recent study revealed that it takes employees an average of 25 minutes to get back on task after a distraction.

Goals are about the desired results one wants to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. Problems arise when an individual or firm spends too much time focusing on goals and not enough time designing systems. Remember, it’s about quality and not quantity. There are always busier periods like year-end, but asking or requiring team members to repeatedly overwork themselves is poor management. Such a pattern suggests the absence of lessons learned from past mistakes and can even be considered a manifestation of insanity, defined as doing the same task over and over again yet expecting a different result.

Team members expect empathy from management. Leadership without action can become a hollow word that evokes bitterness. Leaders must be observant and recognize when and where problems arise or unproductive patterns emerge. Rather than consistently expecting team members to broach an issue, leaders can and should exhibit approachability and flexibility, while consistently and proactively checking in with team members about resources and relationships. That being said, initiating hard discussions (ex. “I need your help with…”) with one’s manager can increase harmony at work and in one’s personal life. We cannot complete everything ourselves.

Lead by Example
Establishing work life harmony programs is just the beginning of the pursuit to increase job satisfaction, overall retention, productivity and meaningful engagement. Putting these programs into practice can prove difficult. Firms may start the process by ensuring the leadership team is on board and taking advantage of the work life harmony opportunities provided. Once employees see that balancing work and personal life is acceptable to and practiced by upper management, they will be more likely to follow suit.

One of the decisions I have made in my pursuit of work life harmony is to no longer work while I am on vacation. Traveling throughout the pandemic carries with it the fear of contracting COVID and subsequently being prevented from flying home and returning to work as expected. Therefore, my laptop has been an unwanted guest on my vacations. Unfortunately, due to this "new normal," it has become expected or required to work to meet late requests or urgent needs. Let's collectively redefine what "an emergency" actually is in order to allow all team members to unplug, refresh and enjoy the benefits promised them when joining the team.

Furthermore, redefining workforce norms sometimes means disconnecting from the tools that force us to be perpetually reachable. Examples of disconnection when needed are turning off Teams, silencing Outlook notifications, implementing automatic forwarding from desk phones and setting automatic text responses. I have found that dropping the habit of checking my phone as I wake up immediately causes a significant shift in my mental bandwidth. Checking one’s phone first thing each day generates a state of reaction that places you at the mercy of everyone else’s “urgencies.”

I know this starts with me. Now let’s apply these lessons to amplify harmony in our future workplaces, wherever they may be.