I’ve been doing some reading about work-life balance (and how it rarely exists).
Many of us have spent years — maybe even decades — trying to find ways of achieving work-life balance. A primary focus is often, reducing the demands from our work time to allow more “life” time. And, indeed, research shows that idea is important to retain talent and most companies have developed policies to help people carve out some balance.
It’s become even more difficult to achieve in the last decade with improved technology making it hard for people to really unplug from work at the end of the day — let alone weekends and holidays. It’s hard to leave work when it follows you on your phone everywhere you go.
I’ve noticed a shift toward the idea of work-life synergy, which is a refreshing new way of trying to find some “balance.” The idea behind this is that each side of our life supports the other. The difference is nuanced, but it’s interesting:
Work-life balance implies there are two sides competing, like weights on opposite sides of a scale, and by compartmentalizing you can focus fully on one and then the other.
Work-life synergy focuses on finding ways work and personal life can interact and cooperate, creating harmony out of their combined existence. (Life includes your family, friends, health, community, hobbies, etcetera.)
With work-life synergy, we work to align everything with our goals and unique needs. It’s a way of figuring out what you’re passionate about not only at work, but in all facets of your life — at home, in your hobbies and in your volunteer time — and using things you learn or practice in one area to support or strengthen another. At times, it requires more flexibility and at times, increased commitment.
It’s an interesting endeavor in today’s work climate, when the ability to stay connected (and sometimes the pressure to be constantly available) can result in our work lives eclipsing everything else about us.
You may be surprised when you start looking at your life this way how many elements can work in harmony. Instead of feeling stretched and pulled in all directions, you may start to feel more congruity.
A tech leader we know used to struggle to find time to practice yoga during her busy work weeks. If she tried to fit in classes after work, she felt she lost quality time with her children and partner.
She decided to make time during her workday for yoga, and found to her surprise that some of her team members wanted to join in. She had become a certified yoga instructor back in her university days and found great joy in leading classes in a break room. Not only was she enjoying her return to the yoga mat, she saw how the classes were reducing stress and encouraging a different relationship among her team members.
Other leaders have shared how they felt great satisfaction in sharing their time and talent for finance with non-profit charities that were aligned with their own beliefs.
One finance manager not only volunteered as a treasurer for a non-profit organization, but started participating in fundraisers for a cancer charity. As a cancer survivor, he enjoys giving back and also celebrated his return to health by cycling 200 kilometers for the epic two-day Ride to Conquer Cancer. Plus, his improved fitness routine has helped him manage stress at work and feel more focused.
Work-life balance to work-life synergy
Here are some ideas to help you shift from thinking about work-life balance to work-life synergy:
Accept the complexity. You can embrace different aspects of your identity and you don’t have to pick one over the other. Make a list of things you care about and then ask yourself: Why are these things important to me?
Find common ground. Look at your list and then think about connections. Are there aspects of some things you do or enjoy that complement others? Does being better in one area help you in another? What skills can you take from one area of your life to another? Are there ways you can make time for what matters that you hadn’t considered previously?
Recognize it’s more than just work and personal life. Move away from either/or thinking that either you’re at work or you’re home — or either you’re working or you’re relaxing. Synergy is about finding harmony, not segmenting aspects of your life. Are you able to enjoy the moments where you are? Are you giving your full attention to the activity at hand (whether that’s talking with a client, or talking with your kids, calculating spreadsheets or going to the movies with your spouse)?
As leaders, we can also help folks on our team move toward work-life synergy. Finding this sweet spot for work and life helps with mental wellness, retention, recruiting high fliers and job satisfaction. All of this then feeds into other benefits, like higher productivity, creativity, and loyalty.
Here are some ways to encourage a shift in culture to work-life synergy so that everyone on your team can walk the talk:
Offer practical support. Researchers find that employees appreciate a variety of supports to facilitate their work-life integration. It’s not just being able to telecommute at times (that’s expected in today’s job market!), but also other things like on-site daycare, gym subsidies or classes at work, perhaps a shower and changing room, healthy snacks, casual dress and flextime. What are some things you can offer to your team members?
Agree on boundaries and respect competing priorities. It’s so easy for us to keep working around the clock and through days off and evenings because we’re tethered to cell phones (and thanks to smartphones that means email and spreadsheets and on and on). Being able to say no without losing respect is part of the equation — the other part is being the leader who says I understand and let’s see how we can make this work and still achieve our work goals. Set the example of making other things in your life a priority and, for example, really unplugging when you take a vacation.
Understand demographics and cultural differences. Millennial workers are driving change in the workplace because they just don’t (or won’t) live to work because they want to work to live. They want careers to fit in with their lives and individuality. Their successors, Gen Z, also want work that has meaning and a meaningful life. Add into that the diversity of a multicultural workplace and there will be different priorities for family time, holidays, cultural traditions and more. When leaders support people finding what work-life synergy means to them individually, everyone is more inclusive and supportive.
Involve your team members in the conversation. Work-life synergy is going to mean something different to people in different industries, at different stages of life and from different backgrounds. At its essence, work-life synergy is achieved when employees have more control over their lives professionally and personally. What will make your team feel more engaged, creative and enthusiastic? (Hint: the same things that will make them more productive and increase their job satisfaction.)
This might look like someone leaving work early to drive a child to soccer and catching up on work later at home. Or it might be someone telecommuting for a stretch of caregiving for an aging parent. It could also be offering team members opportunities for professional development because many folks like to feel they are involved in something that has meaning and that their employer is supportive.
Align with company and personal goals. When you set performance goals for your team members, of course, you’re going to want to have them align with company goals. But team members who write a personal vision statement for their career will have some ideas about what work-life synergy means for them as individuals.
This helps to determine ways everyone can get work and life to dovetail so that one supports the other — things like cycling to work knowing there is a place to keep the bike locked and safe as well as somewhere to shower (meeting the personal goal of keeping fit without any strain on work or other goals).
Consider setting weekly priorities. Making a habit of setting weekly priorities (individually and as a team) instead of a daily to-do list helps the flow of work and life because you’re not perpetually managing urgent situations that knock everything else off the schedule. Check out project management and communication tools that may be very helpful for planning and executing priorities (at Padraig, we use Asana and we know some of our clients use Trello boards to manage deadlines and many moving pieces).
When there’s a rhythm to work, everyone on your team can schedule other things around the key priorities and manage their time accordingly. Some companies even reserve certain days or times for meetings or administrative tasks so that team members can flex other days without inconveniencing anyone else.
Embrace a change in time management thinking. Instead of feeling like you’re juggling or always short on time, reframe the busy-ness in a positive way. Setting priorities and finding time for what matters is about problem-solving, not throwing your hands in the air in frustration and defeat. When you can figure out what matters most and strategize how to get things done, you’ll attract and keep the best and brightest talent. It might involve teamwork, delegating, outsourcing (by the way this applies equally to work and personal life!) or asking for additional resources — or it could mean you’re going to have to set some new habits and guard your time more wisely.
What possibilities do you see in shifting from work-life balance to work-life synergy? How can you start finding work-life synergy for yourself? What can you do to help your team achieve it?