Why it’s Time to Ditch Work-Life Balance and Focus on Work-Life Blend

This article was featured in the July 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Lawyer Magazine 

By: Michelle P. Baca, PhD – Business Development & Marketing Manager, CIO Solutions

 

Our company sells a Cloud Desktop solution. We tout it as a solution for productivity, as a technology that means you can work anywhere that has an internet connection and  anytime. The Cloud is fantastic for people who work remotely or who work flexible hours. The downside is that it contributes to the ubiquity of work in our daily lives. As we strive more and more for a balance between work and life, we have to wonder whether technology that makes it easier to work when we are not physically at work is actually making our lives better or worse. As we make advances in technology and as the workplace becomes increasingly looser the question of work-life balance becomes more urgent.

Most strategies for work-life balance prescribe clear delineations between work and not work. They advise leaving work at work and not letting it bleed into home or personal life. These strategies espouse not checking email over vacation or shutting off notifications after 5:00pm. As it turns out trying to balance work and life is actually more stressful than either actual work or actual life.

In an article from August 2016 in The Harvard Business Review titled, “Research: Keeping Work and Life Separate is More Trouble than It’s Worth” David Burkus explains,

It’s true that for some time, the best advice on work-life balance was to create stiffer boundaries between both. But new research suggests that maintaining strict distinctions between work roles and home roles might actually be what is causing our feelings of stress to set in. Instead of leaving work at the office and home at the door, integrating both might be a better strategy for enhancements in well-being and performance.

The current best advice then tells us to abandon balancing in favor of blending. Do everything, take a work call at 7:30pm and check your email on vacation.  This new thinking rooted in the realization that balance is next to impossible focuses on a strategy that blends tasks and emphasizes increasing resilience around task switching. Burkus utilizes the psychological idea of “cognitive role transition” to explain why switching tasks is so taxing. He says, “When you’re actively engaged in one role, but experience thoughts or feelings related to a different role, you’re experiencing a cognitive role transition. Often these transitions are easy and fleeting…but the more separate the roles in your life, the bigger the transition.” So most of the stress of managing work and life lies in the drastic transition  between work tasks and life tasks. This is why total separation and hard boundaries between work and home have been such a big part of the popular discourse. Basically, if cognitive role transition is difficult, then limit your amount of transitions.

Burkus, however, points out that “..blurring the boundaries and integrating work and life might better equip us to handle cognitive transitions while limiting the drain on our cognitive resources.” These transitions are pretty much inescapable, and so it behooves the modern worker to view these transitions as the norm. By blurring the boundaries between work and life one can build their resilience around task transitioning and ultimately reduce their stress. This new take on the subject isn’t simply a reversal of old adages, rather it examine an old question in the context of a rapidly changing workplace.

The modern workplace is becoming more flexible. More companies are allowing employees to work remotely either part or full time. More companies are allowing employees to work hours that reflect the natural flow of their individual productivity versus an arbitrary 9-5 day. These shifts in modern work require a shift in how we understand the relationship between work and life. Increased flexibility in working hours and location leads to deeper satisfaction and less stress for employees. In “How a Flex Time Program at MIT Improved Productivity, Resilience, and Trust,” from the Harvard Business Review in June 2016 author Peter Hirst examined how a part time remote worker program increased overall work satisfaction in the MIT Sloan School of Management where he worked.

He notes that flex time was initially introduced as a perk. As hiring top talent becomes increasingly competitive most companies look to make the job seem fun by adding ping pong and happy hours. Hirst’s department decided to add flexibility as a perk. By allowing employees to work remotely with unique hours they immediately decreased the stress associated with a work commute. Additionally employees were able to work regardless of the weather because they didn’t have to worry about commuting through a winter storm, this increased productivity. The most important impact though was that this flexible schedule made the employees feel trusted and respected by their employers. Hirst writes,

We trust our people to be professionals and understand what needs to be done, regardless of where they work. It’s easy to forget how traditional work practices like required office hours can often come off as a lack of trust for employees’ ability to get the job done. When surveying our staff, 62% recorded an improved feeling of trust and respect. Based on this stat alone, it’s clear to me that people who feel trusted will get their work done efficiently while improving overall morale and company culture.

It is ultimately reductive to wonder whether technology is making things better or worse. The fact of the matter is that technology is making things different. While smart phones and Cloud desktops make work more ubiquitous they also make it more flexible. More flexibility all around is overwhelmingly positive. By developing resilience around cognitive role transition we will be better equipped to reap the benefits of a new flexible work place.

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