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Changing How We Think about Work-Life Balance

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The term "work-life balance" is outdated; what we now associate with work and life are not always the same as they were traditionally, said Jennifer Cox at Women in Tech Dublin 2019. She mentioned that in many cases they overlap or clash from time to time, making it even harder to mentally separate the two. "We have to shift our thinking more towards integration and alignment, than balance," she argued.

There is increasing strain on employees to be available outside of work hours and employers to lure employees with shiny new things, when the point is often missed about what is truly at the core of a work-life balance, said Cox.

When thinking about finding a work-life balance, it’s not just about making time for yoga or quality time with the kids. It’s about more than that, argued Cox; it’s the mental balance of everything. She mentioned that in order to do this it is vital to sit down and work out where your time is being spent and know what it is that makes you you. "It’s kind of like a budget of your hours, and spending them wisely," she said.

While we can’t make more hours in the day, we can choose carefully how we spend these hours and how invested we are in the tasks we choose to use this time for. This is where the sense of freedom begins and personal growth happens, said Cox; it begins psychologically.

Cox mentioned that organizations can increase employees’ engagement with flexible working hours, allowing working from home, and by measuring work in terms of goals, rather than hours worked.

Jennifer Cox, a security engineer at Tenable, spoke at Women in Tech Dublin 2019; InfoQ interviewed her about integration and alignment in work and life.

InfoQ: How can we put structures in place to give more freedom and allow personal growth?

Cox: When it comes to structures, it’s important to carve out time for you as an individual. Keep note of your current schedule. Add in time spent on everything, including watching TV or driving kids from A to B. Then see how your time is being spent. Allocate time to you, however little it may be. Below are the priorities in order of importance. I will demonstrate in my talk how to look at these with a clear and direct approach, in order to ensure you fit them all in.

  • Sleep
  • Time for my growth
  • Life
  • Work

InfoQ: What can organizations do to increase their employees’ engagement?

Cox: Some of these things may appear obvious.

  • Allowing flexibility in working hours. A late start or early finish can be vital to allowing an individual to get access to the things they need to grow. If there is no room for flexibility in the workplace, then productivity is reduced.
  • Introducing working from home. I would recommend one compulsory office day a week so that teams can get together, but the freedom to either work from home or in the office on the other days should be welcomed. It allows for a lot of things such as:
    • A reduction in stress from commuting
    • Being able to be on hand for family in moments of need while not having to sacrifice work
    • Allowing productivity around necessary appointments
    • A quiet workplace for those who work in an open-plan office
    • Cost savings
    • Comfort; a relaxed employee is a productive employee
    • For the employer: higher team productivity, trust, reduced cost of office space and more availability for customers
  • Measure work in terms of goals, rather than hours worked. I have worked on research projects in the past alongside my previous job. It suited me to do this work in the evening. I was meant to work two hours a day, but I generally worked twice that and made up that time during the weekend with my family. The project simply had to be delivered by a given deadline. It wasn’t important how or when I did it, as long as it was done.

InfoQ: You mentioned that work-life balance is a fluid process, and the nature of work and life rarely stays still. How can we find the right balance and become prepared to adjust it often?

Cox: In order to take these changes as they come, we need to be able to accept that there may be failures. Sometimes the best plans get thrown out by the unexpected. It’s very easy to let the ground move from under you if you don’t take the time to ensure you are nourished by things that help you grow.

If your work and life are ever-moving targets, then it’s important to salvage the parts of them that you can and keep them constant. At the top of this list should be some time spent doing things that make you happy. For me, that would be cuddles with my youngest, listening to podcasts or building flat-pack furniture.

InfoQ: What might the future work model look like?

Cox: Work models will be more fluid, adjusting to the needs of customers, employees and employers. There are very few roles that can still be defined as 9-5 office hours and desk-based. We are able to pay our car tax at midnight, school fees from the bathroom and review restaurants while on the bus. If our consumers are approaching products and services with a requirement for more flexibility, then businesses and products need to be more flexible.

For companies working on projects with measurable and necessary milestones, such as designs, then it makes sense to set deadlines. But if one person is more productive from 6 am to 2 pm while working from home, and that means they can pick up their kids from school, then why enforce a strict 9-5 policy? As long as the project is completed by the deadline, when, where and how the work is completed shouldn’t be an issue.

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