People have always strived to find the right balance between work life and personal life. But now, it seems to be a thing of the past. COVID has entirely changed the way we work and live our lives. The spread of the virus has obliterated the boundaries that conventionally separate work from the rest of our lives. It has left us questioning the old concept of work-life balance.
We used to believe that we needed to balance work and life as if these were independent variables. But in the new era, they will no longer be separate. Rather, they will be tightly woven in every moment of our daily lives. This will be a fairly significant change for many of us. Think about your work and personal lives as two parts of a whole that complement each other, rather than as two separate realities that constantly compete for your time. This type of integration is not about trade-offs – but synergies, gaining more by combining aspects of life often deliberately quarantined from each other.
A good way to clearly define the two roles of your life, but not completely separate is to establish a separate physical area for working away from your personal space. The modern office space will remain an important and integral part of both our personal and work lives; as well as a way to establish an understanding between them. Before we do return to business as usual, one thing does remain from the COVID-19 era—the integration of our work lives with our personal lives.
The Elusive Balance is a Myth
"Work-life balance" came into use in the 1970s and 80s, as stressed baby boomers strove to achieve a balance between career, family, and other areas of their lives; powered to a large extent by the increasing number of women in the paid workforce who also shouldered the bulk of home and family work. Definitions of work-life balance tend to focus on the "absence of conflict" between professional and personal domains.
Professor Stewart Friedman, from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says, "balance is bunk":
"It's a misguided metaphor because it assumes we must always make trade-offs among the four main aspects of our lives: Work or school, home or family (however you define that), community (friends, neighbors, religious or social groups), and self (mind, body, spirit)."
A more realistic and more gratifying goal than balance, he argues, is to better integrate work and the rest of life in ways that engender "four-way wins" between work, home, community, and self.
How is Work-Life integration different for Work-Life balance?
UC Berkeley offers a smart description of the difference between the two. They suggest using work-life integration in place of work-life balance because "the latter evokes a binary opposition between work and life." Work-life integration is "an approach that creates more synergies between all areas that define ‘life': work, home/family, community, personal well-being, and health."
Professionals practicing work-life integration care less about what's "work time" and what's "personal time" and focus instead on what's the best time to do these things. That could mean working later in the day in order to focus on a personal project in the morning or checking email after hours but also checking and responding to personal emails during the workday.
Work-life integration is not only more realistic, but also more empowering than work-life balance. For professionals who have the ability to shape their own workday, the flexibility offered by work-life integration is ideal. For those who are juggling kids, elderly parents, and other personal activities, it seems like the best way to have and do it all.
The Age of Work-Life Integration
What would work-life integration look like in the age of COVID-19? Work-from-home life brings a rawness and humanity to our days. Working from home has been particularly onerous for families with kids cooped up and parents having to take on homeschooling duties. Talking through workplace issues enables the family to support each other and to feel a part of each other's lives. It's an opportunity to increase empathy and understanding from both colleagues and family.
One of the worries would be how client relationships would be affected. Interestingly, it could have a surprisingly positive effect. Through video calls, you get to see them more often and take a peek into their daily lives. Being at home in a relaxed atmosphere, the conversations don't get limited to only work. The meetings can get on a different dynamic: one that is more personable, relaxed, and natural, which helps build stronger and trustworthy relationships.
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The Key Takeaway
COVID-19 has dramatically changed personal and work behaviors, and we need to let go of the mental model of thinking of work-time and home-time being as distinct and separate blocks that compete against each other. We can still find ways to make our new working environments (and lives) more honest, authentic, and personable. Work-Life Integration will be all about clarity: clarity in our values and in our priorities. Making a sustainable choice means satisfying all critical elements of not only for a career but for life, as well.