Organizations and employees are in the midst of discovering what it means to blend professional and personal life as the world slowly emerges from the grips of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Gone for many — particularly knowledge workers — is the old 9-to-5 workday, or even a pre-set five-day work week. The focus for many organizations now is on results — not how much time people spend achieving them.
Sales personnel are likely familiar with the concept; you're assigned a quota, a territory, and a timeline in which to deliver results. How you do so is less important.
The same concept is now expanding to employees in information-intensive industries, such as technology and financial services firms. As a result, the traditional concept of a “work-life balance” — either you’re working or you’re engaging in personal and social activities — is being replaced with “work-life Integration."
The latter is more about blending work, family time, health and well-being, and community involvement, according to the Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley.
A little work, a little home life
“I may get up at 6 a.m. and get on a Zoom call because I have colleagues in Europe,” said Homa Bahrami, Senior Lecturer and faculty director at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley, Calif. “Then I may take an hour off to drop of my kids at school. I come back and follow up with other work, maybe more Zoom calls or other interactions. Then, I may take a lunch break and take a walk. I come back and have a half hour before my next meeting to put my laundry in, and so on.”
Over the past two years, as many people were forced to work remotely, the term work-life integration caught on with both businesses and other organizations. For example, the US Veterans Administration devotes a webpage to tips and resources toward achieving work-life integration.
Companies like Mozilla, a pioneer in open-source software, set themselves up 20 years ago to be a remote company from the start, allowing its employees to develop work-life integration strategies from the get go.
“They didn’t want to have a headquarters, but to be able to recruit people from all over the world and have them work anytime and from any place,” Bahrami said. “So, we’ve seen this antecedence of this work-life integration from the lens of companies like Mozilla and many other start-ups who had to recruit their developers from Eastern Europe or British Columbia.
“But now, it’s hit main street,” she said.
During the pandemic, productivity increased for many businesses. A Gartner 2021 Digital Worker Experience Survey found that 43% of respondents felt flexible working hours had helped them be more productive — and 30% said that shorter commutes, or none at all, accomplished the same thing.
Finding a balance
In a bid to keep those productivity gains, organizations are now hammering out new work policies and practices that enable people to work remotely or in various ways that alternate days or weeks in/out of the office, according to Amy Loomis, research director for IDC's worldwide Future of Work market research service.
“They [organizations] are providing workers with the tools to ensure they have secure access to the data, people, applications, and resources they need to work anywhere on any device at any time – enabling parents to spend more time with their kids and align to school schedules and requirements, or enabling employees to focus on their mental or physical health,” Loomis said.
The challenge is how to manage the integration — how much control employees have to set their own workloads and schedules and how much remains with the employer, Loomis said.
Organizations, for example, may be comfortable or at least reluctantly realistic about the enduring future of hybrid work. IDC’s survey data shows that 45% of technology leaders believe it will be an embedded part of work practices and only 2% say they have no plans to deploy hybrid models. That said, many are still struggling to define what it means and who decides how hybrid models will be deployed.
“The value of the 40-hour work week and a 9-to-5 workday is its consistency, its simplicity, and its familiarity,” Loomis said. “The good news is that we now have work planning and management technologies that can adjust to more complex work arrangements.”
“Asana likes to give the use case of workers who would otherwise have their contributions overlooked, and so they’re getting credit for the work they do because it is managed well,” Loomis said.
Technology, Bahrami agreed, will be key to work-life integration, especially in a time when employees are more apt to spend less time at one company or perform work as gig or contract workers.
Software tools such Salesforce also capture critical data that can be passed along with new employees.
“You know as much about my customers because that information is now captured,” Bahrami said. “This really applies to companies when they consider the ‘super critical roles,’ and so it’s not just about seniority, but the criticality of a worker.”
Talent wars and work-life integration
Organizations are in a war for talent, and prospective employees now have more choice and leverage than ever before.
Stephen Kohler, an executive coach and team leadership developer, said the No.1 issue he hears about from CEOs is not related to COVID-19, supply chain woes or inflation; it's their desperate need to find talent and fill open positions.
To that end, organizations need to develop a compelling “employee value proposition” compared to the old days where the reverse was the norm, said Kohler, CEO of Audrialabs, a management consultancy.
“A foundational element of this is the need to redefine work-life balance toward work-life integration,” he said.
There are, Kohler said, three primary pillars to this strategy:
- Purpose-led vs profit-led: Employees are seeking a compelling “why” from organizations, now more than ever. Organizations that clearly define and co-create with employees their social values, mission, and vision are the ones that will have a long-term competitive advantage. For example, Kind LLC is a prominent example of an organization focused on its people, the planet, and then profits.
- Flexibility within a framework: Organizations used to focus on where and when employees worked. Now, as many employees choose to work remotely, organizations need to focus more on outcomes (deliverables, milestones, new customers) and let employees figure out the where and when.
- Enabling connection and co-creation: One of the downsides to remote work has been the loss of connection to colleagues, clients, and partners. To enable that, organizations need to continue to offer both virtual and in-person opportunities for employees to connect. Examples include engaging through virtual team events (cooking classes) and in-person experiential activities.
Another factor that’s entering the equation in “a big way” is where companies find talent, according to Bahrami. If a company allows remote work, it can tap into talent regardless of where they live, as opposed to companies that expect employees to be in the office for a set number of days each week.
“Companies may end up having satellite campuses to create a physical environment so people can come into work when they’re recruited from very different geographies,” Bahrami said. “I think experimentation is where we’re at today in many companies.”
Companies that can promote work-life integration also have a competitive advantage because data shows workers will gravitate to places that offer them greater flexibility and autonomy to work when and where they want — as long as they achieve business goals.
Shure audio taps employees for best practices
For Shure Inc., an American audio equipment maker, the pandemic changed the expectation of many employees about where, when and how work gets done. So, Shure responded by evaluating its entire workplace structure.
The company created what it calls "Guiding Principles" that include recognizing that employees, which it calls associates, performance is not always defined by physical presence but is more about trust, agility, community, flexibility and collaboration between managers and associates.
Shure conducted third-party research with their employees to discover how they work best and from that research instituted a program called WorkPlace Now, which has some people working completely remote, some in the office regularly and some with a hybrid schedule, according to Meg Madison, senior vice president of Human Resources at Shure. "We have seen this provides more work-life integration for our employees," she said.
Shure also created a number of different professional development programs, the most recent being the Associate Resource Group (ARG). There are three ARGs – called “Vibes” – which focus on three areas where the company wants to provide more support, education and understanding. One focuses on women, another on race, ethnicity, language and culture, and lastly one that focuses on creating an LGBTQ+ friendly workplace.
Shure also began promoting work hours flexibility, Madison said.
"As a global company that collaborates closely with people in other countries on a regular basis, it is important for our employees to feel like they have flexibility in how they work. Some may need to work outside of “normal office hours” to join conference calls with colleagues in other countries," Madison said. "Our associates know that we trust them to help us meet our business objectives, even if they aren’t able to do so (or choose not to) in the traditional 9-5 setting."
Organizations that don’t provide that flexibility will have a harder time finding top talent in this era of the Great Resignation, Loomis said.
Workers who stay at organizations that continue to run in hierarchical ways, and that don’t offer upskilling and cross skilling or flexible work arrangements, have a higher rate of burnout, Loomis said. They’re also less committed to the work they are doing “and the organization will lose opportunities to innovate and build a culture of trust,” she said.
Given that companies are still in the early stages of figuring out what work-life integration means, there are bound to be miscues or mistakes. The good news: most companies can weather mistakes so long as there are lines of open communication and corporate leaders are open to learning from mistakes.
“These miscues might be using traditional HR programs as a band aid to what are deeper systemic issues around management trust or support,” Loomis said. “Having wellness programs that preach balance on the one hand while day-to-day quarterly pressures increase stress [on the other hand] does not work.”
Organizations also need to be explicit about outcomes and expectations and makem it easy for employees to ask questions and get clarity on whether they will be held accountable without specific task-based milestones. “The mistake here is in offering flexibility without opportunities for getting guidance in real time,” Loomis said.
Rolling out programs that profess to give flexibility, without training managers to provide support or truly trust their employees to get work done, also does not work; managers have to learn new ways of supporting and guiding teams that is neither totally hands-off nor micromanaging.
There is no one-size-fits-all model for companies and employees, according to Bahrami.
“I look at work that’s independent versus interdependent — what we call ‘loosely coupled’ versus ‘tightly coupled,'" Bahrami said. “If you’re a member of an engineering team, you’re dependent on other colleagues for input and the information they provide. Whereas if you take a [writer] or a graphic designer, it’s more independent work. It’s very much driven by you.”
Companies involved in innovation, such as tech start-ups and software developers, are more dependent on worker interdependencies.
“One CTO of a software company recently told me his most important tool for innovation is the whiteboard in his office. His team would brainstorm and write on white board,” Bahrami said. “This individual said, ‘I can’t do that from home.'"
A life-science company running a laboratory, a construction or hospitality business, or a manufacturing facility would require workers to be on site. But even those kinds of organizations have implemented a version of work-life integration by allowing employees to work from home a day or two to focus on, say, administrative tasks associated with their jobs.
The challenges ahead
As companies come to grips with work-life integration, they must tackle how to maintain their “cultural glue,” or their employees’ emotional attachment and sense of belonging to an organization.
“Some companies may not care about that, but I am seeing companies investing more in high-potential employees,” Bahrami said. “So, they may have 40,000 employees, but they have to figure out how to keep these 500 people in critical roles engaged.... If they’re not (doing so) they’re apt to act like mercenaries where they move onto the next job that pays more. Then, you’ve lost a lot of institutional knowledge, and it's hard to replace that.”
Some employees may also enjoy, and even need, being in an office more often than others. For example, millennials, Bahrami said, can actually feel a sense of isolation if they’re forced to work from home. Among younger generations, there is definitely a desire for social interaction, and that means being in-office.
“It’s too early to tell where we’ll end up. A lot depends on how these experiments shape up,” Baharmi said. “But there’s definitely a lot of experimentation.”