Is There a Future for Work/Life Balance?

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, created a stir at the SHRM conference in New Orleans this year by stating: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

Organizations worry about being perceived as offering a good balance between work and personal time.

Many career sites and recruiters stress the ways the organization addresses this through flexible work policies, family-friendly HR polices, child care, and so on. And, for many job seekers, finding a company that offers this magic blend is the Holy Grail.

While Jack was addressing women specifically and speaking about their opportunities for promotion and growth within traditional corporate America, he was reinforcing this assumption. He was heavily criticized for talking to women in this way, even though it is an accurate reflection of the thinking in most of traditional corporate America.

My problem is not with Jack as much as it is with the assumptions that work/life balance is based on.

We assume that work and family should be separated and that there should somehow be an equal division between the two, which is implied in the word “balance.”

The concept of work and life being somehow distinct from each other is a recent construct. There was no work/life balance in the 17th, 18th, 19th, or for most of the 20th centuries. Work and life were integrated and no one would have even thought to separate out what portion of farm life, for example, was “life” and what portion was “work.” Wives and husbands and children worked together as family units, producing food, clothing, or operating a small family business. Roles were assumed and cast off as needed and whoever had the ability or skill needed at a particular time did what was needed to be done.

In most of the world this is still the case. It is only in developed nations that these artificial distinctions arose to meet the needs of factories where everyone had to be in a physical place for certain time frames in order for things to be made. It took England and the United States decades to get people accustomed to going to work at a particular time and staying for a fixed amount of time. The way we work today has never been an organic or natural way, and our fixation recently on work/life balance is only the latest manifestation of an old issue.

Where I think Jack was misguided was in not recognizing how rapidly the traditional corporate world is crumbling. Organizations like Facebook, Mozilla, and hundreds of other emerging firms are organizing in radically different ways. They are focusing on interdependence, on building networks and fostering relations between workers, vendors, and customers. Innovative firms realize that flat structures and open communication improve creativity.

So the good news is that many organizations are moving back into the world where work and life are integrated and where entire families may be part of the “team.” Technology makes this possible, and as high definition video, faster connections, and touch capabilities improve it will be easier and easier. At the most exciting startups, people are already seamlessly integrated into projects where roles frequently change as needs change and leadership rotates as project requirements evolve. Workers are able to be at home with their kids or spouse. They can be outdoors or indoors. And very often they can be physically far removed from the “office” whatever that is coming to mean. The emerging concept is that being in a certain place for a specific time is less important than achieving results and accomplishing goals.

While Baby Boomer managers are locked into the concept of physical space and time as keys to assessing contribution, younger workers have a different view. They realize that for personal as well as environmental and energy reasons, working from home is going to become the norm.

I am not downplaying how difficult it is to change the Baby Boomer attitude, but I am optimistic that as younger managers appear, as environmental pressures increase, and as younger organizations begin to generate significant revenue and employ more people, attitudes about work will change rapidly.

There will always remain work that requires physical presence — whether it is making something, caring for an ill person, or fixing your drainpipe. But less and less work requires a physical presence, and what remains may be done with greater flexibility and personalization than it is today. Our entire world rotates around an 80+ year-old concept that work is something done away from home, for a set amount of time, and should not be fun. Work is assumed to be only the means to have another life and as little of it as possible is good. The flip side to that is an assumption that work is what makes life meaningful and to do it with your partner, friends, or family is good. How many hours it takes to do it or where it gets done are far less important than the engagement and accomplishment.

Jack Welch was absolutely right if we are thinking about 20th century corporate life. However, Gen Y and those who follow are forging new territory and reinventing work — making it the engaging experience it should be where friends and families interact together all the time, teach each other, share workloads, and find emotional connections that have been purged from corporate life as we have known it.

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