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  • Writer's pictureAri Betof

What Happens When Work-Life Balance Becomes Work-Life Synergy?

Recent studies, such as an in-depth 2019 workplace assessment conducted by human resources software solutions company 15Five, show that for today’s employees, “work-life balance” doesn’t just belong in quotation marks—it’s a myth altogether.

When balance becomes impossible, strive for synergy

What had been emerging communications technologies a generation ago are now ubiquitous in every aspect of life, blurring the lines between our work life and personal life. The COVID-19 pandemic has further changed the entire concept of what a workplace looks like, with increasing numbers of remote workers striving to gain traction in building a vibrant personal life reinforced by an enriching work experience. They want to feel thoroughly engaged, energized, and supported, as well as like what they do matters.

The members of today’s workforce—and not only those from Generation Z—are increasingly expressing the need to feel supported by management in multiple aspects of life to facilitate a high-quality work performance. Instead of passively accepting a company’s attempts to promote a “balance” while positing a clear line dividing work and personal time, these employees are challenging the status quo.

More than limiting their idea of benefits to what’s contained in the traditional HR catalog, they are expressing a need to be able to move seamlessly between the workplace and personal spheres, with each complementing and feeding the other with renewed energy and ideas.

What they are looking for is work-life synergy.

But what they find may be a different story. It can take major culture shifts for a company to understand how to foster an environment in which employees’ talents can flourish, encouraging them to connect with their work and rise to the challenge of bringing their best selves to the job.

What’s needed: a cultural shift

A December 18, 2018 article in HR Dive draws on comments from multiple corporate executives to reinforce one point: when mobile device connections to the workplace are everywhere, the entire concept of “balance” between career and private life becomes obsolete. These challenges have become further exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Notably, an HR professional quoted in the piece observed that the core of her job today involves changing the conversation to reflect contemporary realities for both employees and employers, as well as supporting employees in achieving success in all parts of their lives.

Some companies have shown themselves to be successful in navigating this change by re-fitting work schedules and even brick-and-mortar office design with these values in mind. Where many still lag is in adapting management styles to meet our new reality. And with unresponsive management styles typically comes a lack of employee confidence and trust in leadership, hindering everyone’s performance and job satisfaction.

Learning to see time and productivity in a new way

Part of the employer’s role, as suggested by the perspective of work-life synergy, is to build in as much flexibility as possible, depending on the nature of the job. To take a basic example: If an employee can put in a few extra hours in the early morning to complete a task so they can attend a 9 a.m. function at their child’s school, the job gets done and both employee and employer benefit. By supporting this seamless blending of employee life roles—this work-life synergy—the company gets an emotionally healthier, less-stressed, and happier employee who will tend to perform better while exhibiting greater loyalty.

Experts offer a few techniques for better aligning company culture with the value of work-life synergy:

  • Throw out daily “to do” lists and replace them with a conscious mapping-out of a week’s worth of goals.

  • Abandon pride in multi-tasking (something most humans aren’t objectively good at) in favor of bringing undivided attention to each interaction, conversation, and project.

  • Support the use of technology as a strategic partner, rather than as a source of rising stress, to help structure and prioritize workflow when employees feel the need to stay on alert for each pinging demand competing for their attention.

Keeping it real

The 15Five report, in particular, brings up several key ways in which management can develop a culture better able to support work-life synergy for employees. Innovative leadership training focused on rebuilding organizational culture into one incorporating frequent one-on-one meetings and direct, honest, 360-degree feedback is an essential way to start. In these healthier, more responsive workplace cultures, human connection and conversation take the lead.

A range of studies and anecdotal reports show that employees who have weekly face-to-face check-ins with their managers overwhelmingly report greater job satisfaction. And face-to-dace does not require in-person. One upside of the pandemic is the increased comfort with virtual meetings enabling greater flexibility fitting such conversations into tightly packed schedules.

In the comprehensive 15Five study in particular, 84 percent of these employees stated that they are always honest with their managers, close to 75 percent reported that they are highly confident in their managers’ leadership capabilities, and more than 50 percent said that they have requested personal advice from their managers. Additionally, of the employees who perceived their one-on-one meetings as very helpful, about half planned to stay with the same company for at least five more years.

Experts call one effect of this type of human-centered support “psychological safety,” which is the belief that honest mistakes will not be punished and that one can speak openly and with a moderate degree of risk. An August 24, 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review noted that a sense of psychological safety is essential for achieving high performance across all types of workplaces. Employees who feel a sense of psychological safety tend to be more comfortable being creative, seeing things from new perspectives, and applying themselves to solve difficult problems.

The 15Five survey specifically points out that 9 out of 10 employees said that they do their best work when they feel that their organization supports their emotional wellbeing. And almost all the managers who responded reported that they believe their team members’ emotional state is equal in importance to traditional metrics of job performance.

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