The road to “work–life balance” is a near-guaranteed path to failure.
Hear me out.
For years now, we’ve heard endless discussions on how to make work–life balance a reality, and time and time again, we see those concepts challenged, redefined, and downright labeled an impossibility. And then you hear from the occasional person that it’s achievable. But there are so many variables, including home life, earning power, proximity to support and help, and work role and responsibilities that approaching balance in any one way will most certainly not work for everyone. Balance for a 25-year-old single software engineer with no dependents who walks to work in San Francisco is drastically different from the balance of a 38-year-old single parent who has a three-hour commute.
With such a delta between the multiple definitions of work–life balance, is it possible for company leadership to find a way to make it mostly achievable for their entire workforce or will we be forever chasing something unattainable? One thing is for certain: the era of near-total self-sacrifice and “working yourself to death” in order to excel at work is over. Some would argue this is a uniquely American professional trait. So when leading a global team, what has worked for one part of the world most definitely doesn’t work for the rest (leading to resentment). And if we’re being honest, it wasn’t really working for Americans either. People are increasingly recognizing the importance of mental and physical well-being and healthy boundaries in the workplace. And that may have some leadership sweating.
As a long time C-level executive—and a wife and mom of two kids—I’ve also struggled with the give and take of work and home. To try to find the best possible solution when faced with attending a board meeting and the desire to chaperone my son’s field trip to the state capital. Both are equally important to me and both are pressured by the expectations of those around me.
Here’s what I’ve realized: There’s no one right answer, but there are plenty of wrong ones. Inflexibility is wrong. Leadership without empathy is wrong. Unrealistic expectations of your team members’ self-sacrifice is wrong. Refusal to acknowledge that people have different needs is wrong.
But what’s right? How can leadership support employees in healthier ways? How can leadership sort out what people truly value and need, to help bridge the work–life balance gaps that we’ve all come to realize weren’t healthy? How can we address the unspoken expectation of being a workaholic that people feel? I think the answer lies in the need to toss the entire concept of work–life balance in the trash altogether, and instead really think about work–life integration.
What that can look like for the business, how it can help employees, and how to chart a path towards individual ownership, autonomy, and empowerment where people are generally just happier, less stressed but just as productive, if not more. A balance-based system is extremely fragile. Instead, integrating life and work is possible; weaving the two together according to what works for the individual, trusting the people to design a system that works for both the individual and the team overall, and learning the value of flexibility.
Here are five tenets of leadership that have worked wonders for me and my teams over the years, ranging from Fortune 50 companies to companies experiencing explosive growth, doubling or tripling in size within a couple of years:
Strong Leadership and Empathetic Leadership Aren’t Mutually Exclusive
Ruling with an iron fist has never worked. It makes for miserable employees and frustrated management. Empathy goes a long way in connecting with your team, understanding them on a more intimate level, and leading in a way that puts people first.
The Health of Your Team Directly Correlates To The Health of the Business
It’s time leadership rethinks their expectations. The pursuit of being the best isn’t in and of itself bad, but if getting there means putting unrealistic pressure on your teams to perform at whatever cost, it is. All hands meetings at 3a.m. on a Sunday (or any day) or forcing people to work through the night to meet a deadline aren’t hallmarks of passion or dedication. They aren’t badges of honor. They are reflections of flawed leadership. Instead, leaders need to shift their thinking, adjust their expectations when necessary, and lead in a way that makes success achievable without sacrificing the workforce.
Empowerment Means You Need to Take a Backseat Sometimes
Guidance with clear direction is the best way to empower your team to make their time at work as valuable as possible and allow them the space to take ownership of decisions at work. A level of trust and autonomy will have them satisfied in the work structure that best suits them, all the while allowing the space to recharge when needed. As leaders, we need to focus less on hours worked and more on quality of work and whether objectives have been met. Forcing a nine-to-five workday structure is less about productivity and more about control—something empathetic leaders need to move away from.
Life is full of curveballs and if the pandemic taught us anything, leaders need to realize that employees are humans first, with different needs, pressures, aspirations, and priorities. And things can change in a heartbeat. Supporting team members through these changes benefits the company overall, but more importantly, it provides a work environment that makes people a priority as human beings, not productivity machines.
Lead By Example
Most importantly, leaders need to lead by example to create a work environment that has healthy boundaries, space and time to recharge, and open communication when tough topics need to be addressed. Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to take a vacation and truly disconnect and recharge, or be open (and unapologetic) about prioritizing home events as much as work events. Everyone has a life outside of the office, and that should be embraced and celebrated. Leading by example brings teams closer together, and aids collaboration, understanding, and honesty.
Niki Hall is CMO of Contentsquare, a digital experience analytics company, overseeing its global go-to-market strategy. Its digital experience analytics cloud helps companies understand hidden customer behaviors, and use those insights to drive more successful experiences.