Changing the work-life balance debate

Boston University academic argues we should instead strive for work-life integration

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

I recently read an interesting blog post on the Harvard Business Review website I believe is totally on point when it comes to work-life balance. According to Boston University business professor and former CEO Kenneth Freeman, it’s important to take time away from work to attend to personal business and relationships. He also believes in taking time to exercise, learning to say “no” and doing a better job of managing one’s time.

Freeman also recommends not trying to do everything or striving for perfection in work-life balance. In fact, he believes “balance” isn’t the right metaphor. Instead, Freeman argues we should be striving for successful work-life integration.

He believes our work and home lives are inextricably intertwined and that it’s important to realize our jobs and careers are important to us. Ultimately, our work is what puts food on the table and forms a major part of our identities.

Freeman also points out that modern technology makes it easier to maintain non-work relationships at work (although the reverse is also true). Because of that integration, he believes in scheduling all aspects of our lives using one calendar as if every commitment was a business meeting.

However, he also argues it’s important to be in the moment when it comes to personal engagements. In other words, people should be fully engaged in what they’re doing at the time and give it their undivided attention, without constantly monitoring their smartphone for work e-mails.

No rigid separation between work, home life

Although he doesn’t say it outright, I suppose Freeman’s message is, “work hard and play hard.” Generally, there doesn’t need to be a rigid separation between work and family life, although it’s important to understand when it’s necessary to completely disengage from work activities.

I am inclined to agree, especially with regard to white collar and managerial jobs, where it’s difficult to completely separate one’s work and home life. It isn’t like spending a day working on an assembly line making widgets, where you can completely disengage at the end of the workday, come home and leave everything behind.

While organizations need to be mindful of unpaid overtime claims from non-managerial employees, I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with checking my BlackBerry for work messages occasionally during evenings and weekends. Likewise, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the occasional personal call at work or spending five minutes here and there checking Facebook or personal webmail, or running a small errand like doing some online banking at work.

Employers can’t have it both ways. If work encroaches on employees’ personal time, organizations have to realize it’s a two-way street with people’s personal commitments occasionally intruding into their work lives.

Most of the time, I don’t personally believe in trying to separate my work and home life. However, it is absolutely necessary to set boundaries at times — particularly for important activities that shouldn’t be interrupted for business calls or e-mails that can easily wait until later.

Quality versus quantity of time

I also believe it isn’t always about the quantity of time one spends on family or personal activities. Spending quality time with someone and being completely engaged in the activities you’re participating in with that person is usually better than staring at a television screen or sitting in the same room together barely talking and mindlessly surfing the net.

While I’m not saying work is ever more important than your spouse or children, sometimes work just has to take priority. But at those times, it’s particularly important to schedule fun activities with your kids or have a date night with your spouse or partner.

I believe we work to make money so we can have a nice life, and if you are at all ambitious you need to put in more time and effort than the bare minimum to get ahead. I also understand that work often defines who we are.

I personally need to have some type of plan and be working towards long-term goals for my career to feel fulfilled. And I’m actually less likely to have proper work-life balance if I don’t have a sense of accomplishment from a job well done or have that nagging feeling of unfinished work on a Friday night.

I suspect many other people have similar thoughts and feelings about their work.

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