When we conduct executive retreats, we like to open with a brief, but very powerful get acquainted exercise. We ask participants to think about their lives outside of work and consider what they value most. After a few minutes of reflection, we ask them to share their thoughts with another executive in the room. We continue these one-on-one dialogues, moving from colleague to colleague. After a few rounds, we stop (or try to stop!) the conversations. From the atmosphere in the room, we know that we are interrupting more than small talk when we debrief the exercise by asking two simple questions: How do you feel? What was said?
Responses to the first question — “How do you feel?” — Typically include positive emotions such as relaxed, connected, inspired, proud, interested, and engaged.
Responses to “What was said?” are more varied. Families, friends and relationships are always mentioned. Faith is a high priority for some, but so are hobbies, avocations, service, exercise, sports, health, financial security, safety, wealth, freedom, and an assortment of lifestyle variables and personal choices.
The most enlightening aspect of this exercise, however, is not what people value outside of work. It is how quickly we can set a tone for openness and innovation when we draw upon the personal values of participants, a topic of conversation that is often discouraged in the workplace, especially for women with children.
Either/or = lose: lose
In today’s global e-economy, the days when we could easily compartmentalize work and life are long gone. If our employers pay for our Blackberries, are we expected to be on call around the clock? Should customers and coworkers halfway around the world take precedence over family to accommodate their different work hours? Will it jeopardize our careers if we don’t respond to email and phone messages when we’re on vacation? Beyond the differences in time zones and customs for conducting business around the world are the daily opportunity costs and challenges closer to home. Can we ask for time off to care for a sick child? Can we interrupt our work day to attend a school play or take an elderly parent to the doctor? Promoting work-life balance forces daily trade-offs for both employee and employer, a lose/lose proposition for many.
By framing the problem as one of “balance,” employers force employees to make very hard choices: We will focus on having to make choices as part of life strategies –how could we better position this? To have a good life, we must compromise our work; to have a great career, we must sacrifice our personal life. The strategies that support this either/or framing include “work smarter, not harder” and “leave your personal life at home,” and “earn your stripes” through “more face time.” Not surprisingly, workers and managers at every level tell us that they feel guilty about the choices made for the sake of “work/life balance.”
Integration = win / win
We’re convinced that work-life balance is the wrong objective. We believe work/life integration, a powerful new trend in nurturing organizational excellence, is both a sustainable solution and a win/ win proposition. Work life integration frames the problem as a design issue: How do I design a life that allows me to integrate my personal aspirations with my professional aspirations? What company policies will enable employees to thrive? How will nurturing work / life integration become a talent recruiting advantage for us?