Work-life balance or integration? Remote, hybrid, or return to office? In the past few years, tech companies have tried to redefine the best approach to work. But as groundbreaking as some of these new ideas are, many still miss the point: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution in a post-COVID working world.
Work-life debaters generally fall into two main camps: the separators (or balancers) and the integrators. Separators tend to want strong boundaries between work and life, like keeping set hours and “clocking” out of the office at the end of the workday. Integrators, on the other hand, go for a more blended approach and may compromise by taking work calls during family time or bringing their kids to the office. Crucially, both of these perspectives have been largely based on in-office work.
Then came 2020, when millions had to work from home. Suddenly, employees found themselves juggling work and family life in the same spaces, often homeschooling kids and taking Zoom calls from their kitchen tables. Full-time workers began reporting longer workdays and increased stress and burnout, leading many to wonder if remote work would mean the end of work-life balance as we know it.
And in some ways, it has.
Individualization, the next post-pandemic work challenge
At a recent roundtable hosted by #WorkAnywhere, WeWork, Zoom, and Remote met with European Parliament and Commission members to discuss the future of work-life balance.
Remote quoted Ivanti’s 2022 Everywhere Workplace report, which states that 71% of workers would prefer to work from anywhere, anytime, while 43% had seen better work-life balance due to remote work.
WeWork shared the importance of combining face-to-face interaction with hybrid solutions. According to their recent survey with Economic Impact, 75% of workers desire flexibility to work between home, an office, and a ‘third space’. Zoom added that flexibility in the workplace leads to widespread cost savings, better mental health, and reduced dependence on large urban centers.
The consensus: companies need a range of flexible work-life management solutions that support individual needs and work styles.
Two people, two approaches to work
There’s no better way to illustrate the importance of individual approaches to work than by looking at our own careers. On the surface, we are two campaigners in the future of work space with similar interests and goals.
But dig a bit deeper and you can see how different our approaches have been.
Separating work and life
Ben was a success-crazed overachiever who adjusted to a healthier way of living and launched the #WorkAnywhere campaign.
Ben: By 24, I’d already sold a company, and was Head of Innovation for one of the world’s biggest media brands. I had everything I ever wanted, except that my anxiety disorder was escalating, and I even developed scary physical symptoms like extreme fatigue, headaches, and nausea. Since doctors had no clue what was going on, I turned to CBT, a therapy which is based on the concept that one’s thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and actions are interconnected. My therapist helped me to identify my work addiction — and the chronic stress this caused — as the root of the problem.
To stay “sober”, Ben’s taken a more rigid approach to separating his work and personal life by setting strict boundaries for himself, like no work in the evenings or on weekends, and no phone before 7am.
Here’s what Ben’s average workday looks like:
- Before 9am: Exercise, meditation/therapy techniques, and reading (no breakfast due to intermittent fasting)
- 9am-1pm: Work until midday, hour break for lunch (“deep work” in the morning and meetings in the afternoon)
- 1-6pm: Work again for a few hours, long walk, wrap up work
While his schedule can vary, Ben’s main goal is to avoid falling into the workaholic’s trap of “making up” the extra time he spends on his personal life. Rather than shooting for perfection, he aims for 70% productivity each day. The temptation to slip back into the old ways is always there. But hopefully Ben has learnt his lesson.
A more flexible, integrated schedule
Future of work and wellbeing writer and digital nomad Leanna has been self-employed her whole professional life, choosing to create her own work structure for mental health reasons.
Leanna: I’ve lived with PTSD, anxiety, and depression for over 15 years and learned early on that the traditional workplace wouldn’t be a great fit. After a variety of freelance gigs and part-time work after university, I started my own freelance business in 2016 (also finally got myself into therapy). In the past 6 years, I’ve set plenty of healthy boundaries for myself, but since my mental health is a daily issue for me, complete separation is not an option. Flexibility is, quite literally, what keeps me alive.
Leanna’s energy levels and ability to function can change drastically day-to-day. So while she has an ideal schedule in mind, heightened anxiety and depressive episodes dictate when, how, and how long she can work.
On a good mental health day, her workday looks something like this:
- Before 7:30am: Tea, reading and start work
- 7:30-10/10:30am: Work and take calls for at least two hours
- 10:00/10:30-4pm: Breakfast, time with husband, lunch and chores, sometimes with short bursts of work in between
- 4-8pm: Errands, long walk and back to work for a few hours, depending on the day
On bad days when she still has to be productive, Leanna works 7 days a week (instead of her regular 5-6) for a couple of hours a day, combining short bursts of work with long breaks. Instead of a set schedule, her boundaries revolve more around the types of projects and clients she takes on, her workload, deadlines, and managing her energy day-to-day.
No more separation vs integration
Together, our personal choices have helped shape two different, yet healthy approaches to work. Now, you could argue that Ben prefers work-life balance, while Leanna is more of an integrator, but the reality is not that simple.
The danger of taking sides in the work-life separation or integration debate is that most people don’t fit comfortably into one box or another. In fact, a 2016 study shows that there is a wide spectrum within work-life separation and integration and the majority of people fall into four different work boundary style groups, not just two.
If one side were to “win” the debate today, we would both lose out. Because ultimately, having the freedom and flexibility to create our own schedules is equally important to both of us: it allows us to work and live well.
Shaping the new world of work
The world of work has come a long way since 2020, but we’ve got a ways to go. Hybrid and remote work, though both great concepts, are still more work-life management battlegrounds than actual solutions. We need to think further forward, giving employees the power to decide when, where and how they work.
So, where should tech companies begin? How about turning the concept of work-life balance on its head:
“We’ve been saying ‘work-life balance’, but life comes first, then work,” says Remote’s VP of Special Operations, Filipa Matos. “…this is something we’ve been advocating at Remote: work is a part of life, not the other way around.”
Here are a few ways businesses can support personalized life-work management:
- Create a range of flexible work policies that address main areas of friction for workers like work scheduling, work locations, and paid leave.
- Build a work culture that supports employee ownership.
- Advocate for government policies that build on individual rights in and outside of the workplace.
Remote is a great example of a company thinking forward about work-life management. Their list of employee benefits includes company self-care days, home office and coworking allowances, and generous leave offerings as well as flexible scheduling. More importantly, though, they’ve created a work culture that encourages employees to shape their workdays.
Remote’s company values state, “We trust you to do what is in the best interest of the company… It’s up to you to decide how you do your job at Remote.” Their public handbook also helps managers and workers alike navigate a more flexible working life, breaking down each benefit in-depth with examples and communication guidance.
Every company has a take on what work should look like. But by refocusing employee benefits and work culture to center around individual needs, we can not only encourage workers to live healthier lives, but empower them to do so.
After all, there is no one “right” way to work, but many.
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