How many times have you heard someone reference “work-life balance” since 2020? How many times have you talked about it yourself? This topic is nothing new, but it’s trending now more than ever—and for good reason!
Today, employees are on the hunt for jobs that offer balance and flexibility. In fact, 64% of workers are more likely to consider roles with flexible hours than the alternative. They value employers who trust them to manage their time and get their work done, without always sticking to the traditional nine-to-five model (complete with cubicles and buzzing fluorescents).
In an ideal world, flexibility means more time for hobbies, chores, family, community, and self-care. Without long commutes and office constraints, hybrid and remote workers have more opportunities to balance their personal and professional lives.
Organizations themselves reduce real-estate costs while increasing access to talent. (Take BookClub: Our team members work across the country, and the world, from Manhattan and Los Angeles to the Netherlands—and a small city in the South, where the person writing this post is currently on her second cup of coffee.)
While optimal work-life balance is the goal, it’s not always easy to achieve. And remote work comes with its own challenges, especially since COVID-19: more child care needs, less organic interactions with coworkers, and blurred “business hours” (sometimes “flexible hours” can become “all hours,” which inevitably leads to burnout).
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, especially since balance and productivity look different for everyone. But there are steps managers and leaders can take to help promote more work-life balance for their employees. These steps, once put in place, can reduce stress, improve employees’ mental health and wellness, prevent burnout, increase engagement, and guard companies against “The Great Resignation.”
Many of our go-tos come from leading experts and authors who’ve written books on the subject as the workplace has evolved. Here are some of our top takeaways. (You can also find our work-life book recommendations listed here.)
Partners Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen gave up office life to become independent, work-from-home journalists. During that process, they’ve learned that working from home doesn’t automatically prevent burnout.
The couple co-authored Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, which explores questions employees and managers should be asking re: returning to the office. Their book also highlights the difference between “boundaries” and “guardrails.”
While boundaries are contingent on employees to uphold (and often fail, especially for members of marginalized communities), guardrails are the responsibility of the organization—specifically leaders and managers, who decide how to communicate the amount of work that needs to be done, and when.
“Boundaries can, theoretically, work, but only for a privileged subset of your organization. They’re simply not a sustainable option for the vast majority of workers, especially those who aren’t in senior positions, who are women, who are people of color, or who are disabled […] You need something structural.” -Warzel and Petersen, Out of Office
The solution? Establish guardrails that protect everyone’s time, and stop praising employees who continue to overwork. Instead, treat overworking as another issue that needs to be addressed and resolved—not a call for celebration!
As a leader, it’s your responsibility to help employees feel empowered to disconnect from work. Here’s a real-world example that made headlines: Last year, Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser banned internal Zoom calls on Fridays so employees could recharge. She also encouraged employees not to communicate after their “business hours.” (Important note: Not all hours are business hours.)
Your brain needs time to rest in order to operate at full capacity. Working more hours ≠ more productivity. In fact, studies show that after 50 hours/week, productivity starts to decline. Cultivate a culture that not only respects but encourages time off. Define when people need to be available, and when they don’t.
Keep Meetings in Check
Have you ever been in a meeting and wondered, Why is this happening? You’re not alone. In a survey from the Harvard Business Review, managers reported that a whopping 83% of their scheduled meetings were unproductive. And that’s just managers.
Meeting overload can happen, whether you’re working in person or remotely. Not only is this frustrating and exhausting—it also translates into lost time and revenue.
Here’s what we’ve found helpful: creating a “culture of discipline.” In Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, author James C. Collins encourages leaders and employees to become experts in how they operate. Disciplined people engage in disciplined thought and action.
What does this have to do with meetings? A culture of discipline can only exist once your meetings include specific agendas focused on individual and company priorities. You’ll need a way to define accountability, too. These kinds of meetings, held consistently, build the kind of momentum that takes companies from—you guessed it—good to great.
“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” -James C. Collins, Good to Great
Here are some ways you can ensure your meetings are actually productive:
- Agendas are your friend: Set clear expectations for each meeting, along with clear outcomes.
- Match the medium to the message: Can your team address the topic over Slack or email instead? A meeting might not always be the best approach.
- Be short, sweet & succinct: Spend less time presenting strategies that are vague and/or verbose.
- Work together: Build and present opportunities for your team to create the strategy.
- See the glass as half full: Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, identify, prioritize, and analyze your opportunities.
- Serve two pizzas, max: You may have heard of Jeff Bezos’ “two pizza rule.” Although Bezos initially used this when talking about teams, it also applies to meetings: If you need more than two pizzas to feed attendees, you’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak. (Sorry if all that food language made you hungry. Yes, we think all in-person meetings should have snacks.) Smaller meetings tend to be quicker and more constructive, with better engagement.
We talk more about the importance of mindful meetings in “Leadership & COVID-19: How to Support & Empower Your Team,” a free resource you can find here.
Combat Urgency Culture
Every day, we’re bombarded with countless distractions and demands. Emails, texts, reports, assignments, questions, all competing for our immediate attention and response. Add to this a fear of missing out, or FOMO—an experience that’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic—and suddenly you’re checking emails and messages well after “working hours.”
The fact that many of us have such easy access to these channels only adds to the problem.
Numerous books and articles address this issue—it’s a big one. The main takeaway we’ve found is to determine what’s actually urgent (spoiler: few things are) and respond to those things first. The rest can wait. Really.
The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity by Adam Merrill, Leena Rinne, and Kory Kogon (check out our interview with Kogon in the Effective Leadership with FranklinCovey book club) covers this in choice #1: act on the important, don’t react to the urgent.
Instead of mindlessly trying to do as much as possible, make a conscious decision about what to address. This involves using your prefrontal cortex (you weren’t expecting a science lesson, were you?), i.e. your “thinking brain,” which can consciously process and reflect on information. The other area of the brain, sometimes called the “automatic” or “reactive” brain, responds instinctively—without fully processing important details.
Author Stephen M.R. Covey also addresses the need to “act on the important” in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (TL;DR? Check out our top takeaways.) Habit 3: Put first things first. Decide what has the most worth, Covey suggests. Then make that your priority.
Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction by Matthew Kelly is another must-read for anyone who craves a more fulfilling, rewarding work (and home) life, but isn’t sure where to start. Kelly proposes that what people actually want is personal and professional satisfaction. His advice? Create a balanced life around your priorities and values. This will prevent you from being sucked into a never-ending flood of “urgencies” and ultimately lead to greater satisfaction.
“Without clarity around what matters most, without a clear value and priority structure, that we can commit to, our lives tend to get kidnapped by the urgent. By this I simply mean that we give attention and intention to whatever is most urgent.” -Matthew Kelly, Off Balance
Leaders and managers: One of the best ways to empower your employees to practice these behaviors is to lead by example. Know your own values and priorities. Act on what’s most important. And be thoughtful about the “urgency” of your own requests.
Where, when, and how people work has changed dramatically since the early days of COVID-19. Many of us experienced working from home for the first time and quickly realized the benefits (and, of course, the challenges). Regardless of individual experiences, people like having options.
In a 2021 Bloomberg Survey, 39% of employees said they would consider quitting if their employer would not allow them to continue remote work in some form. (Cue the “Great Resignation,” which is a bit more complicated, but that’s for another day.) A flexible schedule allows employees to have greater control over their lives and invest in what matters—like family, community, hobbies, and rest.
HR platform Hibob conducted a global survey to better understand the evolution of work since COVID. Their findings revealed that workers—including senior management, middle management, and individual contributors—enjoyed being able to work from anywhere, prioritize family, and cut down on commuting. Eighty-two percent of workers surveyed also believe that hybrid/remote work benefits outweigh the cons. Having an office space can help with socialization and collaboration, but it’s not essential for company success and employee satisfaction.
“The pandemic has forced the adoption of new ways of working. Organizations must reimagine their work and the role of offices in creating safe, productive, and enjoyable jobs and lives for employees.” -Rhiannon Staples, CMO of Hibob
Flexibility is also critical for working parents. Studies have shown that women—specifically women of color—have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. A survey of North American female employees found that one in four women were thinking about reducing or leaving paid work during COVID-19 due to company inflexibility, stress, and caregiving responsibilities.
While there’s no quick fix, leaders and managers can set clear, realistic expectations for employees while also empowering them to create their own schedules when feasible (and, more importantly, not criticizing or penalizing employees who need extra support and flexibility).
Something that would provide more free time across the board (but, like any “solution,” would only work for certain organizations) is a four-day workweek. In The 4-Day Week, author Andrew Barnes calls for productivity-focused flexibility while also outlining the cultural conditions—and legislative considerations—that would come into play.
His main argument: We can, indeed, work less while being more productive, satisfied, and engaged.
“The five-day week is a nineteenth-century construct that is not fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.” Andrew Barnes, The 4-Day Week
With all of this in mind, it’s key for leaders to ask themselves: What could flexibility look like at my organization? How can I better support employees, especially those with caretaking responsibilities? What am I willing to sacrifice (or reconsider) in order to attract and retain talent?
More Books & Resources for Work-Life Balance
Since this is only a slice of what work-life balance entails, we’ve put together a book list with titles that reimagine the future of work, explore mental health and burnout, promote mindfulness, and more.
We also have a free guide for leaders that includes several of the books we’ve mentioned. Download a free copy and learn more ways to support and empower your people in the coming year and beyond!
Above all else: Let’s remember to give ourselves, and each other, more grace during this time. Yes, work-life balance takes work, but it is possible. And it’s a lot easier when we keep an open mind, foster empathy, and embrace our humanness (humor helps—see Working from Home with a Cat by Heidi Moreno, featured above).