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Work/Life “Balance” Is Dead

By: Chris Smith
Last updated 3/3/2011

Work/Life Balance, a term that originated to drive awareness for improved worker conditions, has morphed into a phenomenon of loosely defined objectives with questionable business value. While balance is, in the traditional sense, a good thing, the terminology has crept into the “Best Places to Work” lexicon putting an unbalanced amount of responsibility on employers and less accountability on employees. I propose to retire the term immediately and replace it with a more egalitarian, and realistic term: Work/Life Choice.

Taking a Step Back

I don’t think anyone in our civilized society would argue that we don’t all deserve balance in our lives. However, the work/life balance terminology is loaded and complex and has taken on so many different meanings that it has to go. Here’s why.

Work/life balance defined varies by individual: Balance requires  persons to know what they want from work and from life, and to have the determination to make the choices that help them succeed at both. To paraphrase the cliché, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to be satisfied no matter which road you take. Balance—or a perceived lack thereof—becomes the scapegoat for indecision.

Work/life balance isn’t a proven primary driver of job satisfaction: One research study demonstrated that having a job you like, a company you trust, and a choice over your work priorities creates a more engaged and satisfied employee compared to having work/life balance without those factors. In another, which looked at how employees rate “life satisfaction” with how they perceive their work/life balance, showed that life, not work/life, was the dominant determinant.

Optimizing work/life balance will inevitably be at the expense of something else: A strict work/life balance set of policies will satisfy some employees, hold some employees back, and most definitely lose out on a lot of productivity that the employees themselves want to give. When you measure this lost productivity in hard financial terms—such as cost savings or increased revenue—you are losing an income source that is literally paying for necessary benefits, perks and raises that keep employees engaged and companies competitive. As a real life example, in my industry, management consulting, I’m always left wondering who gets the short end of the stick when consulting firms proclaim “balance.” The answer? I’ve found it in the decreasing work/life balance survey scores of a consulting firm’s clients. When the consultant is “balanced,” their client picks up the slack.

Shining the Light Back on Work/Life Choice

Work/Life Choice is the belief that an employer should empower each employee with the levers to turn up and down their priorities. It also means that each person accepts the rewards and consequences associated with their actions. I believe Work/Life Choice is a better operating philosophy because it provides the flexibility a company needs to adjust to the changing workforce and demands of a job. And, let’s face it; we’re living in a world of change.

While my firm has implemented Work/Life Choice, I’m not the first one to claim its benefits. Jack Welch, the former chief executive of GE, left a Society for Human Resource Management conference rollicking when he said, roughly, there is no such thing as balance, only choices, and when you make them, they have consequences. While many read this as saying you can’t have a good life and good career at the same time, I felt I finally had the phrase that more accurately described a philosophy that high performing employees and employers alike needed to implement.

The phrasing may have been blunt but it is based in science. Every action has a reaction. Reaching the C-Suite will require some sacrifice, and it’s very likely that the sacrifice will be in your personal life. The inverse is also true. Not everyone wants to reach the C-Suite, and many are quite happy prioritizing time at home with family over the executive lifestyle and the work pressures that come with it.


Shared Responsibilities

It is all well and good to pontificate, but the real value to Work/Life Choice is practical application. Just like Work/Life Balance shouldn’t be viewed as an employer-only concept, Work/life choice shouldn’t be viewed as an employee-only concept. For businesses that want to explore Work/Life Choice, putting a significant  commitment to the shared responsibilities is paramount. Here is a place to start.


Responsibilities of the Employer:

Set clear expectations. This starts in the interview process, because people that may work for your company need to know what is expected of them. In our firm, we are clear on the average hours worked, the benefits and the perks, but we are also clear that it is up to the employee to know what they want and how to manage their career to get there.
  • Provide variety. Employees entering a Work/Life Choice culture need different types of assignments that help them plan for both the work and life parts of choice. This takes consistent planning and great communication. In every industry, there are jobs, projects or clients that require more and less time and effort. Making this visible helps employees make the choice that works best for them.
  • Honestly outline the commitments and rewards. Choosing work doesn’t mean the employer is going to let you work yourself to death. It doesn’t mean that putting in hours is necessarily going to relate to results. Similarly, choosing life doesn’t mean subpar performance on the job. Employees need to know what they are getting into.
  • Assess performance by effort and results. Not everyone works at the same speed or level of proficiency. The employer’s job is to set up the structures that help employees reach the goals they’re setting for themselves.

Responsibilities of the Employee:

  • Own your decisions. The Work/Life Choice philosophy is one of accountability that applies to both work and, yes, life. Without a firm and honest understanding of where they are, where they want to go and what decisions they need to make, employees will not be successful in this structure.
  • Communicate early and often. Work/Life Choice is a give and take environment, so both employer and employee need all the data they can get their hands on to plan appropriately.
  • Focus on effort and results. Regardless of if an employee is working 8-hour or 14-hour days, from an office or from a coffee shop, results drive business.
  • Embrace efficiency and experience. Employees should become more productive throughout their working lives. Choosing life over work does not necessarily mean a stalled career path. The highly effective individual can produce more in less time.

Implementing a Work/Life Choice philosophy isn’t a simple endeavor, and it will most likely create a bit of culture shock. It takes time and commitment, and it needs support across the board to work. However, when it works, don’t be surprised if productivity goes up, personal satisfaction increases, and profits follow shortly behind.

About the Author(s)

Chris Smith  is cofounder and partner at ARRVYE, a Seattle-based strategy consulting firm. He can be reached at csmith@arryveconsulting.com.