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3 Reasons "Balance" Has Become A Dirty Word At Work

Recently, a skeptical senior leader asked me to explain the business case for why organizations need to take a more coordinated, strategic approach to work flexibility.

I began to list all of the business benefits, including, "Millennials value their lives outside of work and expect to be able to do their jobs flexibly." He responded, "The problem is that they don’t want to work hard. I would never have talked about work-life balance when I was their age. I just felt lucky to have a job."

He is not alone in that thinking. The meme that Gen-Y/Millennials "don’t want to work hard" exists, in part, because they talk so openly about work-life balance. But is the bias fair?

First, there will always be people in every generation who don’t want to work hard. The Gen-Y/Millennials are no exception, but is it accurate to ascribe that quality to an entire generation simply because they are open about how they want to make their lives both on and off the job a priority? It’s not, for the following reasons:

Millennials are less likely to say that work+life fit is their top priority when compared to Gen-X and Baby Boomers. This is fascinating. The American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program recently partnered with Harris Interactive to conduct its Workforce Retention Survey. They found that:

  • The top reasons working Americans stay with their current employers are work-life fit and enjoying the work that they do. This was ahead of benefits, pay, and lack of other job opportunities.
  • But, when the responses were compared by age groups, "Employees 18-34 were least likely to say enjoying the work (58 percent), work-life fit (61 percent) and benefits (54 percent) keep them on the job, but most likely to endorse co-workers (57 percent) and managers (46 percent) as reasons to stay."

In other words, even though work-life fit was a priority for 61% of respondents 18-34 (Millennials), it was a more important reason for staying on the job for those age 55 and older and 35-44. Doesn’t quite fit the prevailing bias, does it?

So what’s the difference? I think Millennials talk more openly about prioritizing their lives at work and at home than their older counterparts because…

The workplace has transformed radically over the past two decades. There are few physical and time boundaries between work and our personal lives. So we need to actively consider our personal priorities in the context of work if we want what matters to us personally and professionally to happen on a regular basis. Millennials are simply acknowledging this new reality.

Could they use some help collaborating and coordinating with others so that their desired flexibility works for everyone? Maybe. That’s a conversation we all need to have more often.

But that discussion can make people who remember (often fondly) when the boundaries between work and your personal life still existed uncomfortable. Maybe it’s easier to dismiss the Millennials' straightforward talk about work and life as, "Not wanting to work hard," rather than adapting and listening to what they are really trying to say.

When Millennials say they want "balance," they don’t mean work less. They mean work differently and more flexibly. There’s a big difference. My experience is that most Millennials are willing to work very hard when required; however, they might want to work from home or come into the office earlier or later then traditional hours. The problem is that outdated language limits their ability to describe accurately what they are trying to achieve.

For example, a PayScale survey ranked work-life balance as a top priority for the 60,000 undergraduates it interviewed. Again, "balance" is probably not what the undergrads were really saying, but that’s the language they were given, so they used it.

In comparison, another survey of Gen-Y workers by PayScale and Millennial Branding found the group wanted a workplace where the, "programs and culture are more flexible." This is probably a more accurate description of what Millennials want to experience on the job.

We need to help Millennials update their language so it describes what they want more clearly and they are less likely to be accused of "not wanting to work hard." Work-life fit, and flexibility (not balance) are two examples of more modern terminology that we all need to start using.

Let’s review: Research shows Gen-Y/Millennials are less likely than their older counterparts to say work-life fit is a priority for staying on the job. Their open prioritization of both work and life perhaps simply acknowledges a new workplace reality. And, maybe if we all updated our language beyond the limits of "balance," we can finally put to rest the unfair "they don’t want to work hard" judgment that’s been leveled against an entire generation.

What do you think?

Cali Williams Yost has been a pioneering expert on managing work and life for nearly two decades. As a consultant, speaker, and CEO and founder of the Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, Inc., she has shown organizations like BDO USA, Pearson, Inc., EMC, the U.S. Navy, and Novo Nordisk how to partner for award-winning flexible work success. Her second book, Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day, will be published by Center Street/Hachette in January 2013. Connect with Cali on her Work+Life Fit blog and on Twitter @caliyost.

[Image: Flickr user Orin Zebest]

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